Shovels, brushes and dusty excavations sites? For many people this is what comes to mind when they think of archeology. But the field has developed at an unprecedented pace during the last few decades, and now includes tools and methods such as 3D modelling, spatial analysis and even laser cameras mounted on drones. Nicolo Dell’Unto, researcher at Lund University, is part of a growing number of archeologists who are using new techniques to push the study of history forward.
“We constantly have to explore and develop new ways of looking at the past. It might seem paradoxical since we are studying old objects and sites, but if we don’t we will eventually exhaust existing methods”, he says.
The techniques he is using are: GIS (geographic information systems) which is used to create spatial analyses of excavation sites by geolocating photographs; 3D modelling, where you combine a large number of aerial photographs to render a replica of how the house or object looks, and laser scanning cameras mounted on drones. Laser scanning allows researchers to digitally remove vegetation and forests to see what is under the ground.
“With laser you can identify completely new archeological sites without having to do any digging. Of course, you cannot make people leave an area just because you locate objects of interest but you can get more information about a place and its history.”
Excavation sites where Nicolo Dell’Unto hasve applied the new techniques include Pompeii in Italy, where the volcano Vesuvius erupted in the year 79 CE and covered the city in lava and ash, and the forum in Rome. He has created 3D models of various objects such as Çatalhöyük in Turkey and in Pompeii and recreated the excavation site at different time periods. At a cemetery in Blekinge, he has used cameras mounted on drones to create a topographic, spatial image of the very large excavation site.
“Spatial analysis gives you more knowledge about the site. How did life change there? What does it mean that certain objects and structures are placed close together? The fact that we can preserve the excavation site digitally enables us to reconceptualise and reinterpret it”, he says.
He explains that techniques such as GIS are a great improvement on older archeological methods which relied mostly on photography to document excavations. This is because photographs cannot say anything about how different objects relate to each other once the excavation is destroyed to make way for new digging. GIS has also made data easier to analyse and manage, allowing large groups of archeologists to share documentation. Before that, even quite short excavation projects used to yield a vast amount of data that would be unwieldy to handle.
The techniques also enable open for a closer collaboration with other research fields such as osteology, the study of human bones. Researchers can get information about the actual graves and their physical location in relation to doors and buildings. This can give clues as to how people buried their dead and their funeral practices. With earlier methods, only the skeleton and one two-dimensional photographs would have been left to study.
Other benefits include possibilities to assist in conservation; by using GIS, archeologists can identify in what order walls were constructed and give advice on what buildings to focus on to reinforcestrengthen their foundation. The use of cameras mounted on drones, on the other hand, gives researchers access to very high resolution photographs that can reveal more details about the site than photographs taken fromby an airplane.
“We are only at the beginning of what we can do with drones and laser cameras. Things we do today were science fiction ten years ago. For me personally, I see a future where we do not even know what research questions we will explore, and that really excites me!”