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!

Cars

Ford’s new Shelby GT500 Mustang will have 3D-printed brake parts

Ford's new $45 million Advanced Manufacturing Center will focus on emerging technologies, including 3D printing. One of the staff's first jobs is to print parts for the 700-horsepower Shelby GT500 Mustang.
Emerging Tech

Nvidia’s new A.I. creates entire virtual cities by watching dash cam videos

Nvidia's groundbreaking new machine learning technology can generate a convincing virtual city simply by showing it car dashcam videos. Here's how it works and why that's so exciting.
Emerging Tech

3D printing could help regrow bones of injured combat veterans

A scientist at the University of Arizona is investigating ways to mend broken bones using 3D printing and adult stem cells. The research is geared toward helping veterans who suffer combat injuries.
Emerging Tech

Feast your eyes on the wildest, most elaborate Rube Goldberg machines ever built

Want to see something totally mesmerizing? Check out several of the best Rube Goldberg machines from across the internet, including one that serves cake and other that do ... nothing particularly useful.
Emerging Tech

The 20 best tech toys for kids will make you wish you were 10 again

Looking for the perfect toy or gadget for your child? Thankfully, we've rounded up some of our personal favorite tech toys, including microscopes, computer kits, and a spherical droid from a galaxy far, far away.
Emerging Tech

Scoot your commute! Here are the 9 best electric scooters on the market

Electric scooters are an affordable, convenient way to minimize your carbon footprint and zip around town. Check out 8 of our current favorites, whether you're working with a budget or have some cash to spare.
Features

Has Columbus, Ohio raised its IQ yet? A progress report from the mayor

Two years ago, the city of Columbus in Ohio received $40 million to pursue smart city initiatives. So, what’s happened since then? We spoke with its mayor, Andrew Ginther, to discuss progress and what’s ahead.
Emerging Tech

Sick of walking everywhere? Here are the best electric skateboards you can buy

Thanks for Kickstarter and Indiegogo, electric skateboards are carving a bigger niche than you might think. Whether you're into speed, mileage, or something a bit more stylish, here are the best electric skateboards on the market.
Emerging Tech

Hear the sounds of wind on Mars from InSight’s latest audio recording

NASA's InSight craft has captured the sound of the wind blowing on the surface of Mars. The audio file was picked up by the air pressure sensor and the seismometer which detected vibrations from the 10 to 15 mph winds in the area.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

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

New experiment casts doubt on claims to have identified dark matter

A South Korean experiment called COSINE-100 has attempted to replicate the claims of dark matter observed by the Italian DAMA/LIBRA experiment, but has failed to replicate the observations.
Emerging Tech

White dwarf star unexpectedly emitting bright ‘supersoft’ X-rays

NASA's Chandra Observatory has discovered a white dwarf star which is emitting supersoft X-rays, calling into question the conventional wisdom about how X-rays are produced by dying stars.
Business

Amazon scouted airport locations for its cashier-free Amazon Go stores

Representatives of Amazon Go checkout-free retail stores connected with officials at Los Angeles and San Jose airports in June to discuss the possibility of cashier-free grab-and-go locations in busy terminals.
Emerging Tech

Full-fledged drone delivery service set to land in remote Canadian community

Some drone delivery operations seem rather crude in their execution, but Drone Delivery Canada is building a comprehensive platform that's aiming to take drone delivery to the next level.