Archaeology with Digital Style

Using the Leap Motion; a possibility for technology in the future of Archaeology. History Echoes.

Using Leap Motion ©ESP 2013

Humans have altered every environment in which they have lived. Even before the industrial age, even before the written word, even before villages, humans have changed the land on which they subsist. It is said that humans are highly adaptable, but what this has meant is that humans adapt the environment to suit humans. As we adapt things, we leave behind both miniature and large markers of where we once stood and what we once did. Humans leave small individual trinkets of trash as well as massive landfills.

I’m not sure how one would study much without creating individual taxonomies, refining them, and even creating new categories. The modern digital age allows us to take a vast library of information and reorganize it within endless queries and research questions. Cataloging every item a human has ever moved, altered, made or used even in one region does not give itself over to perfection; however, one of the best examples is the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS).  The beauty of DAACS (from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation) isn’t that they nailed everything perfectly. The beauty within the DAACS database is that they have put together a system that truly allows for comparative analysis. And they share it.

Welcome to the modern digital age where you can download or create your own database for all sorts of purposes. A relational database is just part of a system in which the archaeological record can be digitized, connected, and expanded. Each database can be linked to other databases increasing the possibilities for research, knowledge and understanding. With networks and cloud computing, we are not bound to what fits on a hard drive. Each individual program is no longer autonomous. Technology is talking to other technology. An artifact along with all of  it’s associated information can now be  included in mapping programs such as ArcView GIS and drawing programs such as Autodesk’s Revit: which both have their own relational databases. On top of that, images created in drawing programs can be imported and placed into ArcView or a 3D world drawn in Autodesk’s AutoCAD. I only scratch the surface.

Mt. Vernon is working on a transcription project of the John Glassford and Company’s files from Alexander Henderson’s colonial store ledgers. No one has to visit Alexandria or even the east coast in order to participate. It is all done electronically. Volunteers help digitize the ledgers so that they will be more accessible. A volunteer can work from their home computer and all files are sent electronically[1].

Tablet computing in the field also has endless possibilities. My favorite part would be the direct input of data into a database. It would eliminate most of the transcribing from paper to computer. Dr. Steven Ellis from the University of Cincinnati,  found the iPad to be an invaluable tool at Pompeii [2, 3]. Taking field notes, photos, importing drawings,  and having references on hand are only a few of the functions that would be useful. The more innovative  the application’s developers are, the more inventive people will become in ways to use those applications.

As we move forward from the simply practical to the simply wonderful, 3D scanning has opened up new possibilities for all sorts of arenas.  Dr. Bernard Means at Virginia Commonwealth University scans artifacts in 3D and 3D prints some of them.  His blog The Virtual Curation Laboratory  reports on the expansion of the already extensive collection of virtual artifacts [4].

And 3D scanning doesn’t stop at artifacts. The “ArKinect” is a hacked Microsoft 360 Kinect altered to take cheap 3D scans.

It was created by Jürgen Schulze,  a research scientist at UCSD’s division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. Students from the University of California San Diego packed up the device and took it to Jordon in order to map a realistic model of the excavation sites [5]. Who knows what will happen when products like Leap Motion fully hit the market. As technology becomes more accurate, uses up less data storage and becomes more reasonably priced, archaeologists will hopefully remain active in adapting these items to create a better picture of our past.

The way all the technology and data can tie together is enough to make one swoon. The more we all collaborate in this digital environment, the better our perception of the past will become. The future of technology and archaeology is fantastic, exciting, and within our reach.