“I’ve lived through this data transition,” said Thomas Levy, an archaeologist and anthropology professor at the University of California, San Diego. “We still dig like our 19th-century predecessors—with trowels, rubber buckets, shovels, toothbrushes, and so on. But we used to be really encumbered by our ability to record data. We had to be more selective. Now, with these digital tools—with GPS, total stations, laser scanning, and structure from motion photography—we can elect an unlimited amount of data.”
Levy, who helped build the Pottery Informatics Query Database, says his excavations went “totally digital” around 1999. He’s been collecting massive data troves on digs ever since. He’s also experimenting with 3-D visualizations made from data collected at excavation sites—visualizations that can be projected onto physical spaces and might eventually be accessible via virtual reality headsets. The result: people can have the experience of walking through archaeologically significant sites without actually traveling to them. With enough data, people can even have the experience of walking through structures that no longer exist.
“Within the archaeological setting, the site—and the more control we have over space—the more meaningful our observations are.” Levy told me. In other words, the more precision with which researchers can describe an artifact’s physical place in the world, the more value historians can extract from that object and others related to it. Imagine, for instance, an ancient mining site from the time of King Solomon. Someone like Levy might excavate a five-meter-by-five-meter trench through a slag mound where an ancient smelting operation once took place. During that excavation, he and his colleagues would record the geospatial coordinates for every single find—every last ingot fragment, or copper axe, or furnace remnant.
“We’re collecting billions of those data points,” he told me. “And then we sort of mesh them all together and we have not only a 3-D model of the actual excavation from this Biblical period, but we also have a kind of digital data-scaffold in which to embed all the archaeological data points.”
Thanks to satellite data, those data points can now be embedded within a topography of the entire planet. For instance, Sarah Parcak, a space archaeologist, analyzes satellite imagery of Earth, looking for telltale features that might signal a long-lost historical site. Here’s how Wired described her process:
When looking for new archaeological sites, Parcak orders satellite imagery for parcels of land ranging from 65×65 to 165×165 feet square. Then she applies filters to highlight different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum in each image. She’s looking for features that may hint at what’s buried underground. A hallmark clue is the condition of surface vegetation. An architectural structure buried underground can stunt the growth of the flora above it, creating a dead zone—invisible to the naked eye, but detectable in short wave infrared images—in the shape of the underlying infrastructure. In places like Egypt, where vegetation is scarce, satellite imagery can help Parcak distinguish between natural and man-made materials like the mud bricks many tombs are made of.
It’s mind-boggling to think of the amount of data now flowing into the annals of archaeology. But the same thing that makes all this data useful—the sheer volume of information—presents difficult new challenges. Archaeologists aren’t yet sure about the best way to preserve these datasets, and they don’t know how, and in what format, they should be shared across networks.