Cutting Edge Technology Reveals Our Distant, Buried Past

Apr 18, 2016

The Antikythera shipwreck has yielded Hellenistic bronze statues and other treasures from the time of Caesar.
Credit National Archaeological Museum, Athens

The tools of archeology used to be simple: shovels, picks, brushes. Sure, those are still an essential part of the toolbox. But today’s archeologists are also using everything from underwater jet packs to infrared satellite imaging to probe more deeply into our collective past.

What do we get for all this technology?

Nothing less than the very thing that makes us human, argues Brendan Foley, an underwater archeologist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"Is it a return on investment? Is it our stock portfolio?" he asks.

"No. It's our art. It's the things we value in the liberal, humanist tradition of the West."

Foley is using everything from underwater jet packs to 3-D computer modeling to further our understanding of the ancient Mediterranean world. 

A recreated Viking long house at L'Anse aux Meadows
Credit Wiki Commons

  

In the meantime, assistant professor of anthropology at Umass Boston Doug Bolender is part of a team that is using satellite images to discover ancient encampments in North America.

What can you see from space that you can't see on the ground?

Bolender says that infrared sensors can detect slight disturbances in the vegetation that are caused by what's under the ground -- even disturbances that happened around the year 1000 A.D. 

"[They] won't be particularly visible if you're standing on the ground or looking a photo, but it is often quite distinct in the near infrared," he said.

For example, the images show a fenced in yard and some "suspicious" looking rectangles under the earth in southern Newfoundland. If it is truly a Viking village, it would be just the second one in North America.

"They frankly, looked very much in terms of the shape and organization of the known site at L'Anse aux Meadows -- the one, established North American Norse colonial site," Bolender says.