Today’s archaeologists are putting down shovels and turning to tech

archaeology scanpyramid mission
ScanPyramids Mission

Back in 1817, Italian archaeology pioneer Captain Giovanni Battista Caviglia set out to explore the Great Pyramid of Giza, a.k.a. Cheops’ Pyramid: the oldest of the three Giza pyramids and the most ancient of the Seven Wonders of the World. Like a lot of Egyptologists of his age, Caviglia’s pioneering work led to profound insights into Ancient Egyptian civilization — but at a cost. Believing there was treasure located in an undiscovered hidden chamber in the pyramid, he used dynamite to blast several holes, causing significant damage.

Jump forward 200 years to 2017.

“Our top priority is to conduct investigations that are as little damaging as possible.”

Researchers are still exploring the Great Pyramid of Giza, and recently uncovered a new hidden chamber in the enormous structure. But you wouldn’t know just by looking at the monument, unlike Caviglia’s handiwork. That’s because the team of international researchers, operating as part of the ScanPyramids initiative, were able to discover the 100-foot space using a non-invasive particle physics-based technique called “muon tomography,” similar to the technology that allows a doctor to X-ray your bones. To get a better a look at the space, in the future they plan to explore it using an inflatable blimp-style robot that can enter the otherwise inaccessible chamber through a tiny hole in the wall.

“Our top priority is to conduct investigations that are as little damaging as possible to heritage buildings. This is why the ScanPyramids mission started with an extensive use of non-invasive, non-damaging techniques like muography,” Dr. Jean-Baptiste Mouret, a senior researcher working on the project, previously told Digital Trends. “And this is why if, one day, a team bores a hole in a 4,000-year old monument like the Great Pyramid, the hole will have to be as small as possible. Ideally, the hole would be so small that it would be invisible.”

This is just one example of the way that modern technology is helping revolutionize the field of archaeology as we know it. Yes, technology can help lead us to a brighter future — but it turns out that it’s pretty darn good at illuminating the past as well.

“There is a long history of innovative technology in archaeology, especially in Egypt.”

“There is a long history of innovative technology in archaeology, especially in Egypt,” Mouret continued. “For instance, in the Cheops’ Pyramid, there have been investigations in the 1980s with micro-gravimetry measurements, then with ground-penetrating radars, and now with cosmic-ray muons. Several robots have also been used in the Cheops’ Pyramid to explore the ‘air-shafts.’ Beyond this pyramid, satellite imagery was key in many recent discoveries in archaeology, and the list of technologies that have been useful can go on. What may have changed the game in the recent years is the power of modern computers: We can now often analyze, combine, and visualize very complex data on a consumer laptop.”

It’s not just today’s killer laptops that are helping revolutionize modern archaeology, though. A plethora of tools once available only inside research labs are now affordable and accessible to everyone, including those interested in peering backwards as well as forwards.

For example, last year, scientists used readily available Lidar — a tool most readily associated with helping autonomous cars to sense the world around them — to create a detailed map of a long-lost city hidden beneath the jungle in Cambodia. In Europe, an E.U.-funded initiative called the ROVINA project (Robots for Exploration, Digital Preservation and Visualization of Archeological Sites) is meanwhile taking advantage of modern robotics breakthroughs to build robots especially designed to explore historical sites. Just like the Great Pyramid, technology can be used to find new ways to gather data on historical sites that would be difficult or downright dangerous for human beings to explore in person.

archaeology ROVINA Project
ROVINA Project
ROVINA Project

“Robotics technology has a lot to offer in terms of digital preservation of historical sites,” Wolfram Burgard, professor for computer science at the University of Freiburg and ROVINA principle investigator, told Digital Trends. “In particular the ability to more flexibly move the sensors to get to view-points typically not accessible by humans, and to combine multiple views into larger models might play an important role.”

Some projects have attracted big names, too. In Germany, Intel has leant support to Bauhaus University Weimar, which will use drones to help protect the region’s 15th century Halberstadt Cathedral. Specifically, the project uses Falcon 8+ drones to capture ultra-precise three-dimensional structural data, which can be used to advise on where repairs are needed.

VR and AR can transform dusty ruins into vibrant, three-dimensional worlds.

“Some of these assets were in such a delicate condition that using ladders and building scaffolding in near proximity to the structures to carry out this task may have caused more damage,” Anil Nanduri, vice president and general manager within Intel’s New Technology Group, told Digital Trends. “The Intel Falcon 8+ drone was able to do the detailed image capture and 3D modeling without the necessity for close physical contact with the assets.”

Once this data is gathered using cutting edge technology, it can be presented to audiences in fresh ways too. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) can transform dusty ruins into vibrant, three-dimensional worlds to give a sense of what it was like in, say, Ancient Greece at a time when it was altogether less ancient. 3D scanning and 3D printing tools can also help produce either virtual or physical reproductions of objects people would never usually have the opportunity to get up close and personal with.

“New generation of innovators are now more inspired by collective multidisciplinary adventures — [such as] space adventures — than by solitary adventurers,” Mehdi Tayoubi, president and co-founder of ScanPyramids, told Digital Trends. “Innovation even in archeology is now about breaking the silos between disciplines and countries for collective action in the respect of everyone’s contribution. ScanPyramids includes artists, engineers and scientists from Egypt, Japan, France, and Canada.” The cross-pollination between these disciplines, Tayoubi suggests, can help find new ways to approach problems.

Archaeology is by no means the only field that’s currently benefiting from the enormous advances in tech disciplines ranging from robotics and AI to 3D printing and VR. However, there’s something kind of brilliant about a subject that’s, by design, focused on the past being so proactive about looking to the future for answers.

Move over Indiana Jones; it’s all about robots here in 2017!

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Write music with your voice, make homemade cheese

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Robot assistants from Toyota and Panasonic gear up for the Tokyo Olympics

Japan plans to use the 2020 Olympics to showcase a range of its advanced technologies. Toyota and Panasonic are already getting in on the act, recently unveiling several robotic designs that they intend to deploy at the event.
Emerging Tech

This very talented robotic leg learned to walk all by itself

Researchers at the University of Southern California have developed a robotic limb capable of walking without preprogrammed knowledge of the task. It’s an impressive feat that could help future robots navigate the world independently.
Mobile

Samsung’s working on an invisible camera that hides behind a phone’s screen

Samsung envisions an "invisible" camera that hides behind a phone's screen, without any compromise on the way it operates, replacing the current hole-punch camera seen on the Galaxy S10.
Emerging Tech

Eat up! This robot is built to feed dinner to people who can’t feed themselves

Engineers have developed a robot that can feed people dinner. Powered by an artificial intelligence algorithm, the system detects pieces of food on a plate, stabs them with a fork, and transports the morsels to a person’s mouth.
Emerging Tech

Desk lamps take on a new task by converting their light to power

What if we could charge devices using light from indoor sources like desk lamps? A group of scientists working on a technology called organic photovoltaics (OPVs) aim to do just that.
Emerging Tech

A.I.-generated text is supercharging fake news. This is how we fight back

A new A.I. tool is reportedly able to spot passages of text written by algorithm. Here's why similar systems might prove essential in a world of fake news created by smart machines.
Emerging Tech

Body surrogate robot helps people with motor impairments care for themselves

A team from Georgia Tech has come up with an assistant robot to help people who have severe motor impairments to perform tasks like shaving, brushing their hair, or drinking water.
Emerging Tech

New Hubble image displays dazzling Messier 28 globular cluster

Messier 28 is a group of stars in the constellation of Sagittarius, located 18,000 light-years from our planet. Thousands of stars are packed tightly together in this sparkling image.
Emerging Tech

Cosmic dust bunnies: Scientists find unexpected ring around Mercury

A pair of scientists searching for a dust-free region near the Sun have made an unexpected discovery: a vast cosmic dust ring millions of miles wide around the tiny planet Mercury.
Emerging Tech

Take a dip in the Lagoon Nebula in first image from SPECULOOS instrument

The European Southern Observatory has released the first image collected by their new SPECULOOS instrument, and it's a stunning portrait of the Lagoon Nebula, a swirling cloud of dust and gas where new stars are born.
Emerging Tech

Racing to catch a flight? Robot valet at French airport will park your car

Hate searching for parking at the airport when you need to catch a plane? Startup Stanley Robotics recently unveiled a new outdoor automated robotic valet system. Here's how it works.
Business

Bags with brains: Smart luggage and gadgets are making travel smoother

The bag you use to tote your stuff can affect the experience of any trip. In response, suitcases are wising up, and there are now options for smart luggage with scales, tracking, and more. Here are our favorite pieces.
Computing

At $99, Nvidia’s Jetson Nano minicomputer seeks to bring robotics to the masses

Nvidia announced a new A.I. computer, the Jetson Nano. This computer comes with an 128-core GPU that Nvidia claims can handle pretty much any A.I. framework you could imagine. At $99, it's an affordable way for A.I. newbies to get involved.