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High-tech archaeology tools

February 16, 2012

Today I’m launching a new occasional feature, blogspotting, where I’ll be giving props to bloggers who are putting out good, sustained discussions of some of the topics that I cover here on Digs and Docs.

Pride of place goes to the Society for Historical Archaeology blog, which for the past few days has been holding what it calls “Tech Week.” At present, there are three long contributions, each one dealing with a piece of gee-whiz technology that, the authors argue, deserves wider use by archaeologists of the historic period. For more on each, read on below the break.

The first post, by Robert Church, discusses the use of autonomous underwater vehicles in imaging underwater sites, like shipwrecks. Church explains how AUVs can give us immense amounts of photo and geophysical data that can be easily geo-referenced, greatly aiding the ground-truthing of objects detected through other means. In other words, sometimes sonar detects something underwater, but you don’t really know what it is. Images can help underwater archaeologists get a better sense of what’s down there, and whether it’s worth looking into further.

In the second, a post on light detection and ranging (LiDAR), Angela Jaillet-Wentling evaluates some of the existing uses of this technology in archaeology, and suggests tweaking its governing algorithm.

And third we have an overview on applications of 3-D artifact scanning, by Bernard Means. Particularly interesting to me is how Means argues this technology can be used to solve some of the thorny problems of storage, ownership, and curation that arise with excavated artifacts. For instance, a 3-D scan can be saved in lab computers, removing the need to store the object itself on the premises. It could then be returned to a stakeholder, such as the property owner or an off-site museum. Fragile items could be scanned once, and then they wouldn’t have to be touched again.

These posts are quite interesting, as are the comments they have engendered. I’m also struck that in each case, the posters point out that the technological tools are just that: tools. Archaeology is ultimately about people, not artifacts. I’m always a bit leery that our focus on the latest technology can obscure that basic fact, and push us further away from our actual analytical object. These all do a great job of showing how technology can be used not as an end unto itself, but in service of evaluation and interpretation.

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