High-Tech Archaeology Has Teams Logging on, Not Just Digging In

Article excerpt

For scientists who swing picks and shovels for clues to humanity's history, time is an enemy. Geological forces and encroaching development threaten existing sites as well as sites yet to be discovered.

But during the past 20 years, and especially since the early 1990s, the computer revolution has hit the field of archaeology, speeding the pace of discoveries and their dissemination in ways only dreamed of a decade ago.

From the initial search for sites to the presentation of finds to colleagues and the public, computers are improving nearly every aspect of archaeology. "Our wildest dreams are being fulfilled," says an enthusiastic Vincent Pigott, associate director for new technologies at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. In essence, researchers say, powerful computers at discount-store prices are allowing them to take greater advantage of technologies whose data once would have required room-sized computers to process. As a result, laptops, portable satellite receivers, and laser-based surveying equipment have joined hand tools, sun block, and a pair of sturdy boots on archaeologists' supply lists. Back in the office, computer programs designed for drafting 3-D architectural plans are allowing researchers to tease the subtlest details from such long-studied structures as the Parthenon, atop the Acropolis in Athens. "In Greek architecture, we're coming to worry about the refinements," says Harrison Eiteljorg, director of the Center for the Study of Architecture at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa. "Walls lean in on purpose. The Parthenon's floor curves up from one corner to another. The superstructure on top of the columns shares the curve. We known this was no accident." With design software, he adds, "we now have the systems that will allow us to record these in drawings and begin to answer the 'why' questions." But before the "why" questions can be answered, the "wheres" need some attention. Thomas Carr, a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has developed a computer program to pinpoint ancient quarries amid Montana's Pioneer Mountains. The quarries, mined by early Americans from 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, yielded a quartz-based mineral known as chert, which was often turned into tools and weapons. …