The High-Tech Future of the Ancient Science of Archaeology

Emerging technologies could soon allow archaeologists to virtually excavate an entire site within an hour

In many ways, archaeology is still conducted in much the same way it has been for centuries. A single archaeological team might work at a particular dig site for more than 40 years, carefully excavating, studying, preserving, and documenting their findings, and they would barely scratch the surface.

But by 2119, the entire enterprise might look completely different. Emerging technologies could soon allow us to virtually excavate an entire site within an hour, hardly disturbing a square meter of dirt in the process.

Imagine a 500-meter-square mound, with parts of an ancient wall system visible under the earth. Instead of a team of archaeologists carefully removing dirt and debris to document and analyze this ancient site over the course of decades, imagine that a fleet of drones equipped with LIDAR, thermal infrared, and hyperspectral sensing systems fly over the mound to detect subsurface architecture with near-complete accuracy in a matter of minutes. A technician reading the 3D images produced by this scan would see hot spots for the mortuary, administrative, residential, and workshop areas buried beneath the ground in front of her. On-screen color gradations would indicate early and later phases of construction, comparing buildings to an internal database of thousands of examples.

Another fleet of drones would then spread out about a meter apart from each other across the site, drilling holes with powerful lasers and firing pencil-wide probes 7 meters into the ground. The ultrasonic waves from these probes would take readings that would produce models of complete structures, objects, and burials within the site.

Miniature bots would then dig down into hot spots to collect samples of material like bone for DNA testing. They would also scan scrolls and send their images to be read back above ground, the antique material never disturbed.

A computer would then produce an analysis of the site’s likely history based on all of these inputs:

“Site occupation begins in 3225 B.C., settlement with approximately 200 people, expands to small city of 2,000 in 2478 B.C. Expansion due to shifting river course, with increased access to international trade goods and evidence of a very wealthy ruling class.

In 2310 B.C., a regional governor moves to set up an independent army and seizes control.

A drought event 4,300 years ago causes large-scale site abandonment in the region.

A 500-person town reappears circa 1800B.C., with a local ruler, followed by periods of famine, disease, and burning circa 1177 B.C.

With the construction of a major toll road, the site has over 2,000 inhabitants during the Roman Period.

War causes slaughter of the younger to middle-aged men around 146 A.D., disproportionately small evidence for remains of women and girls, all likely captured as slaves.”

All this would take about an hour, after which point 3D printers could recreate the treasures found in the scans — in gold, lapis lazuli, or any other period-appropriate material.

Understanding a site in an hour is obviously closer to fantasy than reality, but archaeologists already use forms of technology that are a few generations removed from the ones needed to perform these futuristic tasks. These technologies might not be as miniaturized, or as mobile, or have the necessary number of sensors attached, but thinking through how much and how rapidly the technologies we utilize today have evolved, I can feel that world of 2119 approaching.

Already, remote-sensing tools are hosted on anything we can get off the ground, from satellites to helicopters and drones. Typical drones used for archaeology measure about 50 centimeters in diameter, but the technology is getting smaller and smaller. Prior to 2015, the heavier the remote-sensing payload, the larger the drone, and sometimes you had to rely on an airplane or helicopter. Now a standard drone can easily lift a LIDAR system and a thermal infrared or hyperspectral camera. All of these technologies have miniaturized drastically in the past decade: a good-quality thermal infrared camera is now the same size as a smartphone. Having fully miniaturized versions on palm-size drones a hundred years from now suddenly seems less fantastical.

Hyperspectral imaging is another exciting new frontier for archaeological remote sensing. A handheld spectrometer (commonly used by geologists but still fairly new for archaeologists) can measure the spectral signature of any material based on its chemical makeup. As buried features on sites degrade, they release tiny pieces of building materials that slowly mix with the strata above. While this may not be visible to the naked eye, we can map these changes — enhanced by rainfall — using infrared data. That allows us to locate outlines of mud-brick buildings or settlement foundations.

Hyperspectral data can also allow archaeologists to identify distinct activity areas on archaeological sites. Ceramic or metal production, for instance, requires burning at high temperatures and leaves clear chemical residues that indicate an industrial zone. The high bone content of cemeteries may change the mineral content of the soil, and produces fragments that can often be observed on top of sites, creating distinct signatures.

Although our sci-fi scene is asking a lot of in situ scanning to parse scrolls, major advances in the scanning of ancient art and writing are already taking shape. Scientists now use lasers to clear soot from tomb walls and reveal stunning paintings. And phase-contrast X-ray imaging can even peer into the burnt scrolls from the Italian site of Herculaneum, the less famous but even more fascinating cousin of Pompeii, destroyed by the same volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The tight rolls are too fragile to unwrap and read, but this technology is able to pick out words and letters hidden among the charred papyrus sheets. While the work only represents proof of concept so far, experts are confident that they will soon be able to read entire texts.

We seem to be light-years from tiny dig-bots capable of the excavation and 3D scanning described in this hypothetical. But if DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, can develop tiny robots that zoom through buildings, I can see tiny bots in the future not only doing the actual digging, but also scanning features below the surface in a way that does not disturb the ancient remains.

And since the dig-bots are down there, then, of course, it would make sense for them to take samples for chemical testing and DNA. DNA testing in archaeology has already become so advanced that specific diseases are isolated by sampling ancient people’s dental plaque. Recent discoveries also include the skin color of a person whose only remains are a 10,000-year-old skeleton. As the field of medicine leaps forward, so, too, will the potential for determining ancient people’s appearances and physical histories, as well as creating lineages potentially going back hundreds of thousands of years.

If you can input all the data from a site and instantly compare every major building, object, skeleton, and technology with every other similar site, painting its complete picture is within reach.

We are also getting closer to the machine learning needed to synthesize the findings at this hypothetical dig site. At the conclusion of a season, what consumes the bulk of all archaeologists’ time is pinning down other, already-explored sites that corroborate or explain their own findings. It would be nice to have a machine do that for you. Search engines like the Google Ngram Viewer can already hunt through databases of millions of books to find the first instance of words or patterns of usage. Those same software principles could apply to finding any “like” things, from city plans, buildings, and walls to fragments of mystery artifacts. If the machine knew the material, shape, size, and technology, it could easily find parallels among objects in a database. Such faster-than-thought comparisons would also help generate complete 3D reconstructions of the site or object, based on more fully excavated examples elsewhere.

Our story ends with a readout analysis of the site from the computer, which suggests its full history with a high degree of confidence. This might be the part you find the most difficult to accept. Archaeologists need to spend decades honing their archaeological and interpretive skills in order to arrive at middle age, when we can finally make grand, sweeping pronouncements. (I’m just kidding. We start making those in grad school.) A dig director today may write a book about a site after working there for 30 or 40 years, only to see most of her theories disproved by her students 10 years later. Which is all as it should be.

But if you have all the data these hypothetical bots collected, representing hundreds of years of standard archaeological work, with the equivalent scientific lab work, then I do not see why it would be impossible to synthesize immediate results, too. With large datasets from a single site, we need major computation power these days to analyze it all fully, but this won’t be an issue in five years, much less one hundred. If you can input all the data from a site and instantly compare every major building, object, skeleton, and technology with every other similar site, painting its complete picture is within reach.

In the future, instead of an archaeological team of 20, plus a large local workforce and years of work, an army of robots controlled virtually by 20 technicians could fully explore 100 sites or more in a single day. Physical exploration, as wonderful and fun as it is, could be done far more effectively by our robot avatars.

My major concern is that as we move away from the dirt is that the great sense of wonder will vanish. When archaeologists and tourists alike put on their augmented reality glasses to experience a sped-up version of the pyramids’ construction, with virtual ancient Egyptian scribes giving them tours, will the experience be the same? Or will it be a futuristic theme park?

Worse still, the idea that, in the future, archaeology could be perverted into a gigantic corporate moneymaking scheme feels like ashes in my mouth. Today, we already fight for every penny from government sponsors, private donors, and more. Some would say any additional funding would be good funding, and we must accept that not everything will be rosy in the future of exploration. We should think of all the good ways archaeology will advance as a field, and all the bad, to have the discussions needed now to take alternate paths.

All Rights Reserved for Sarah Parcak

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