Geomatics in Archaeology: High Tech for Old Digs

Geomatics in Archaeology: High Tech for Old Digs

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Scott Madry
Scott Madry
Research Associate Professor of Anthropology
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, usa
[email protected]

Visualisation and simulation are rapidly becoming part of archaeologists’ toolkit. This paper presents a picture of the ways in which technologies such as GIS, GPS are being used to understand our past. Archaeologists are now using satellite imagery, digital aerial photography, historic and modern maps to search for new sites. They have become more efficient with their limited time and resources, and can do a better job of presenting their results

Archaeology is the study of human beings and their cultures; all made possible through the analysis of their physical remains. Archaeologists study past peoples and their societies, many of which have left us no written record, extending back to the distant origin of our species. We search for the remains of our ancient ancestors and excavate, record, and analyze the remnants of their lives that have been left behind. This is a very biased and imperfect record; clay pots and bones last far longer than cloth or wood, and many sites are buried or destroyed, but it is what we have to work with. The science of archaeology has provided us with a window into our most distant past, and gives us insight into who we are and how we have arrived in our present world.

The traditional tools of the archaeologists: shovel, trowel, compass, paper maps, pen and ink drawings; have recently been revolutionized by the availability of Geomatics technologies and approaches. Aerial photography, close range photogrammetry, satellite imagery, image processing, GPS, GIS, visualization and simulation, all are rapidly being adopted by archaeologists around the world, and with excellent results. How do these tools serve our search for our distant past? How is archaeology being changed by our access to these new capabilities? These ‘high tech’ tools will never replace traditional excavation, survey, and analysis, but they are providing many new and powerful capabilities to archaeologists that enhance our traditional methods. As global population growth and modern development rapidly change the face of our planet, archaeologists around the world are in a desperate race to locate and document our irreplaceable cultural heritage before it is lost. Once these sites are bulldozed, paved, or flooded, they are gone forever. We cannot ever get them back, and the information they contain is lost as well. Geomatics is playing an important role in the location, documentation, and preservation of our common human heritage around the globe.

Geomatics can be defined as the functional integration of many related spatial analysis capabilities. GIS, GPS, remote sensing, image processing, soft copy photogrammetry, spatial statistical analysis, relational databases, visualization and simulation, all are powerful capabilities within themselves, but when we combine these together into an integrated suite of capabilities, and can pass data easily between them, we move into an even more powerful and far reaching domain. Geomatics is also an inherently interdisciplinary domain. It requires the skills and experiences of many specialists to integrate these powerful tools and bring them into focus for a particular application. Archaeology is very similar, in that we also need a large number of specialists that work together in a coordinated team. Archaeologists often specialize in excavation, survey, analysis of ceramics or botanical samples, or drawing and recording features. We also routinely work together with other disciplines, such as geologists, geomorphologists, computer scientists, botanists, and ecologists; all working to put together the pieces of the puzzle that we find. We are now adding the geomatics capabilities to our ‘archaeology toolkit’, and this is having a profound impact on how we do archaeology.