Lasers, Drones, and Future Tech on the Front Lines of Archaeology

James Newhard is Director of Archaeology at the College of Charleston, where he works to bring 3D imaging, mobile technology and geographic information systems to a field more popularly associated with shovels and dusty brushes. Gizmodo got in touch with Dr. Newhard to learn how he uses emerging tech to dig deep into ancient societies.

What is the biggest challenge in your work that you've been able to solve with technology?

I do regional archaeology, or landscape archaeology, which is not so much focused upon a singular site as much as entire regions. We don’t excavate. Rather, we walk through the landscape looking for signs of human activity on the surface.

The fun thing is, all that we find is scatters of pottery that have really been chewed up; they’ve been sitting on the surface for quite a number of years. They’re pretty eroded and very hard to date or even ascribe a function as to what these little, as we call them, “dog biscuits,” were used for. They look like Alpo. What we have is this kind of flattened smear of pottery that has some loose chronological association. We used to basically just throw our hands up, saying, “We can’t really solve that."

So you needed a way to separate out different artifacts that had been mixed together.

I’d been thinking about multispectral satellite imagery, how they’re splitting up the visible light spectrum into 10, 20, 800 different slices. I have a spectrum, too: time. If I treated the data as a series of layers, like a stacked multispectral satellite image, where every layer is a period of time, then I could start making some calculated guesses in terms of how these various undifferentiated smears of pottery could be associated. And it seems to be working, in a very scary fashion. Scary good. Out of one field, you’ll have maybe 100 artifacts, one of which will be dated to the late Bronze age, two of which will be dated to Roman, one of which will be dated Hellenistic. With the procedures that we’re developing right now, we're starting to tease out some of that information, and we’re able to see, from a statistical point of view, some interesting patterns emerge.

Lasers, Drones, and Future Tech on the Front Lines of Archaeology

Unlayered artifacts. Concentrations of ceramics in blue, with artifacts dated to the late Roman period in gray.

Something you mentioned on your blog is 3D scanning artifacts, particularly Linear B tablets. What's the benefit of scanning?

Linear B is the earliest form of Greek known to man. This particular set of tablets was found back in the 1930s. They’re very fragile objects, so we can’t really have people falling all over these tablets every single time they want to check out a syllable or a character.

The idea was to use visible light scanning, 3D imaging and RTI—Reflectance Transformation Imaging, which generates enhanced surface renderings—to present them in a way that’s helpful for Linear B scholars but also helpful as an act of preservation. You can very easily zoom in there and see the stylus strokes, and look very clearly as to how they made each character. And, with RTI, we’re able to adjust the lights to various angles, so you can really start teasing out where are the cracks are versus what is an actual, purposeful scratch on the surface.

Lasers, Drones, and Future Tech on the Front Lines of Archaeology

RTI image capturing. Several photos are taken with the artifact lit from different angles to create an interactive image.

Video from CulturalHeritageImaging.org showing how an RTI image's moving light source can help highlight tiny details.

In another blog post you mention drones in archaeology. What's a good example of how you could use drones?

Drones—oh man, they are hot. In early 2000, I was a grad student working in Albania with a young PhD. We had the inglorious task of mapping the site. We’d start out every morning, and jot down a point every four to five steps to make a high-resolution topographic map. It took us about 12 weeks of field work to put that map together.

Now, you just put a couple sensors on a drone and fly that thing over the site, and you’ve got it in a day. It goes off at a low altitude and snaps everything up; the images are all geo-rectified; bada bing bada boom, there it is.

So no more manual labor for grad students?

Oh, no, somebody has to download those things and stitch it all together! But archaeologists are crazy this way: if there’s a technique, or a tool, or an application—a means of investigation—that will help me understand my question or answer it, I’m going to use it.

Where would you like to see archaeological technology go next?

An area of growth in my mind is virtual landscapes that incorporate our findings into recreated worlds. Typically, we see a lot of 3D visualization that is fairly passive, with fly-throughs or "visits" where you navigate through abandoned, sterile recreations. I’d like to think along a more interactive world, where elements are hyperlinked to more information, the marketplaces are full of avatars, and smoke rises from kitchens. This throws us into the world of gaming technology.

Part of the pull of archaeology is to discover the past, and to recreate in the mind how things would have looked and what types of activities would occur in relation to others. Part of my job is to disseminate my knowledge to a wide variety of constituencies, and digital is the most open way to explore and understand our findings. It’s a medium that is approachable to the widest range of interests.

What’s your fantasy tech for field work?

I’m going to totally geek out here: Jean-Luc Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation, was not only Captain of the Enterprise, he was also an archaeologist. Every once in a while, there’d be an episode where he’d go off and do some little investigation thing. He had this really cool tool where he basically just put the artifact on a little platform thing and, boom, it would collect all the information required from that artifact. The measurements, the type of material, the chemical attributes of that object, all the volumetrics—all of that stuff, boom, done. A matter of 10 seconds. That would be awesome.

Would that take away some of the human element of archaeology?

No, because even though you’ve got a crazy contraption that collects all your information, you still have to analyze it. You still have to have a question that is driving the data that you’re using. That human curiosity, that human question of why and how, is always going to be there.

We always strive for better and niftier tools that collect datain a better and more exacting fashion, and for the means of exploration and organization that help us find those associations quicker and easier. But it’s the why that drives us forward.

Images courtesy Dr. James Newhard.