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Friday, April 19, 2024

Cyberarchaeology lab uncovers ancient cities

For hundreds of years, the core method of archaeology has been the process of excavation – sifting through tons of dirt, silt and mud to find lost artifacts of the past. However, sometimes the discovery goes wrong. Artifacts can break from rough handling or disintegrate on contact with air.

Fortunately, today’s technology can fix yesterday’s problems.

The Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Technology (CISA3) is using cameras, chemical testing and invisible wavelengths of light to change how archaeology and art history is analyzed. CISA3 grew out of the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

Ramesh Rao, Calit2’s divisional director at UCSD, said that CISA3 could improve the state of digital and interactive archaeology.

“You can recreate the dig in virtual reality … for instance, scan the pieces of shattered pottery and virtually reconstruct them,” he said. “Basically, it’s creating new tools to do these scans at lower and lower cost.”

Right now, the new technology is helping research teams investigate archaeological sites in countries like Italy and Jordan.

“We see it transforming the field, broadening the progression of archaeology to reach many people, recording much larger surfaces and better manipulating the images,” Rao said.

CISA3 uses many different techniques to analyze archaeological sites depending upon the needs of the location and of the artifacts, from helium balloons taking 3D images of ancient cities to invisible wavelengths of light beaming on to a single Renaissance painting.

“When you examine these paintings they are metaphorically a lot like patients,” Rao said. “We use very logical techniques to get a deeper view inside.”

Rao and his colleagues at CISA3 and Calit2 hope to find “clues that the artist left behind” that are normally invisible to the naked eye. For instance, the Italian government appointed Mauricio Seracini, the director of CISA3, to find a mural by Leonardo da Vinci called “The Battle of Anghiari” that has been missing since a palace was remodeled in 1563. Da Vinci’s painting was painted over during the remodel, but now CISA3 scientists are using wavelengths of light to analyze the hidden brush strokes and colors. Using this information, Italy’s top renovation institute, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, will reconstruct a mock-up of the wall using those same materials and techniques.

CISA3 is working on more than just individual artifacts. UCSD Professor Thomas Levy, CISA3’s associate director of archaeology, is currently leading an effort to establish a database called the Digital Archaeology Atlas for the Holy Land. Levy’s lab is centered in Jordan and catalogues maps, photographs and 3D artifact representations to make the first “node” in what Levy hopes will be a widespread atlas of the entire Mediterranean region.

“Content drives our research in cyber-archaeology,” Levy said.

Levy said new technology could help document a culture’s change over time.

Levy is currently focusing much of his research on how cultures of the last 10,000 years in the Mediterranean region used mining and metallurgy (the manufacture of metal). He hopes that the atlas will provide a solid context that he and future researchers can use to study the regional cultures.

“[With] the digital cyber-archaeology technologies, we can contextualize our data in ways that traditional pencil and paper recording never could,” Levy said.

AMY STEWART can be reached by science@theaggie.org.

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