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5 ways that modern technology can change the ancient world

Archaeologists, classicists, and individuals who study the ancient world are increasingly using high-tech tools to learn more about the people who lived in the past. In both his academic work and his work for television, Professor Michael Scott has utilized several strategies that have assisted in resurrecting the worlds of antiquity. Following are five ways in which Professor Scott explains how today’s technology assists us in expanding the ancient world.

The Great Pyramid in 3D, From the BBC Series Ancient Invisible Cities explores possibilities of virtual archaeology by scanning and digitally rebuilding historical architecture – in this case, the Great Pyramid of Giza. In this unique form of presentation, visitors can choose between different paths to explore the ancient structure, moving interactively in a 3D environment with stereoscopic 360° video at 12K resolution. The experience is enhanced by a specially created soundtrack and live expert commentary. The contents were adapted for Deep Space 8K by the Ars Electronica Futurelab in the context of Immersify by creating a Unity 3D application, allowing users to move interactively in the three-dimensional space and to freely control their field of view. Thus, interactive elements are woven into the storytelling. © Ars Electronica/flickr

Seeing what’s under the ground

Ground penetrating radar survey of an archaeological site in Jordan. © Wikimedia Commons

The digging process is time-consuming and expensive. Archaeologists have been experimenting with ground-penetrating technology in the past few decades to see what lies below the ground. This has enabled them to target traditional open-excavation much more successfully, allowing them to gain a more in-depth understanding of a site.

This so-called geophysical survey, typically carried out with a device known as a magnetometer, requires a person to walk up and down a particular region in straight lines while pointing the magnetometer toward the ground. The data is then stored on a computer attached to the machine and carried by the person walking with a rucksack on their back.

A ground-penetrating radargram collected on a historic cemetery in Alabama, US. Hyperbolic arrivals (arrows) indicate the presence of diffractors buried beneath the surface, possibly associated with human burials. Reflections from soil layering are also present (dashed lines). © Wikimedia Commons

It doesn’t matter if anything is magnetic; everything has a set of magnetic qualities that might cause local perturbations in the Earth’s magnetic field. The computer generates an image of the archaeological structures (walls, etc.) buried beneath the ground. This enables focused excavation, which may subsequently be used to investigate the material and construction of the features in more depth.

Observing from space

Six Earth observation satellites. © Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists such as Sarah Parcak, who won a $1 Million TED prize for creating a website that allows anyone to take images of the earth from satellites to find hints of ancient characteristics buried under the ground that has not been discovered up until this point, were the pioneers of this technique.

Her website, GlobalXplorer, demonstrates how larger features in the landscape can be brought into focus with the help of satellite imagery by frequently utilizing different parts of the light spectrum (such as infra-red) or by using images taken during specific times of the year (such as the dry season or the rainy season). Some of these features are just not visible from the ground, as was demonstrated very clearly with the city of Tanis in Egypt; this point was driven home quite effectively.

Observation using Lasers

This composite 3D laser scan data image shows staircases and artifacts (primarily incense burners carved in the image of the goggle-eyed rain deity Tlaloc) surrounding the great limestone column of Balankanche (a cave at the Chichen Itza world Heritage site in Yucatán, Mexico), stretching from floor to ceiling and very much resembling the ancient Maya conception of the World Tree (Wacah Chan). © Wikimedia Commons

I have been employed by Scanlabs, a firm specializing in performing laser scans of archaeological sites, for the better part of a decade. We have collaborated on projects such as constructing underground quarries, aqueducts, the Parthenon, significant cathedrals, and complete cityscapes.

These laser scans may be carried out with an accuracy of millimeters. Afterward, several high-resolution color images are superimposed on top of them to provide colored laser-scan renditions of the respective places. After that, you’ll be able to watch them on a computer from every angle and at whatever size you like.

When we were filming the most recent season of Ancient Invisible Cities for the BBC, the crew also used a helicopter to scan parts of the entire city of Istanbul. This resulted in the creation of a laser-scanned model of the city that we were able to tour.

Seeing Virtual Reality

Woman in VR helmet exploring virtual reality. © Oleksandr Pidvalnyi/Pexels

The laser scans we make of a specific site can then be converted into full 3D virtual realities, which you can experience using any 3D headset you have access to. These virtual reality worlds not only make it possible to move around in a location in a way that is not possible in the real world, but they make it possible for a much larger number of people to experience a location than would ever be possible in the real world due to the difficulty of access. It is possible to make them into tailored 360 tours of certain sites, letting visitors learn about a location as they explore it.

Seeing what’s under the sea

The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) explores the Ottoman-era shipwreck. © The Centre for Maritime Archaeology

Standard laser scanners are not very effective when used below the waves. However, recent technological developments are starting to make it possible for incredible discoveries to be made of shipwrecks located in the ocean below. The Black Sea Maritime Project has just recently unearthed a shipwreck on the bottom of the Black sea that dates back to the 4th century BCE. This shipwreck is one of more than 40 shipwrecks that have been found.

The wreckage was discovered by a remotely operated vehicle specially engineered to dive to higher depths than any other vehicle before it and move through the water at a faster speed than any other vehicle of its kind. The truck is outfitted with specialized cameras that can provide 3D photogrammetry and video, allowing it to see even in extremely low light conditions.

The excellent anaerobic conditions in the depths of the Black Sea ensure that the wreck is beautifully preserved and still has its timber mast and rope rigging. This is because the Black Sea lacks oxygen. The scan produced an image of a ship that looked almost the same as if it were still afloat on the water after it had been completed.