Archaeology goes high tech

The Computerized Archaeology Lab in actionA cutting-edge laboratory for computer-supported analysis of archeological artifacts — the first of its kind in Israel and one of just a few worldwide — opened recently at the Institute of Archaeology. Intended to enrich archeological research by optimizing the latest technologies, the Computerized Archaeology Laboratory uses advanced three-dimensional scanners to examine a wide variety of archaeological artifacts. The resulting digital information is then studied and analyzed using special methods developed by the laboratory’s staff and students at the Institute.

The laboratory was created by physicist Professor Uzy Smilansky and archaeologists Dr. Ilan Sharon, Dr. Leore Grosman and Avshalom Karasik. “The three-dimensional scanners provide complete digital models of the artifacts with unmatched accuracy. The resulting digital database enables the use of novel computerized tools for archaeological analysis — it is the development of these methods that is the prime goal of our project”, says Smilansky, a Weizmann Institute emeritus faculty member who today devotes his time to his lifelong hobby of archaeology. “Our work goes beyond digital documentation — it opens up fresh vantage points, explores new possibilities and offers innovative solutions to existing research problems. All this is possible only in an environment where archaeologists and natural scientists interact and exchange ideas.”

Dr. Grosman, who did her undergraduate and doctoral degrees at the Hebrew University, met Prof. Smilansky while doing research for her doctorate on the computerized simulation of prehistoric agricultural models. “I combine the exact sciences with archaeology in my work,” she says. “I believe that this combination is of the utmost importance for modern archaeological research”. Indeed, Grosman is well trained in computer applications, having done her postdoctoral research with Prof. Smilansky at the Weizmann Institute, where they developed computerized methods for studying stone tools. “Until recently, these artifacts were hand-drawn — a time-consuming and expensive process,” says Grosman. “Drawings also involve personal interpretation and do not convey the complete information. The 3D scan provides precise measurements in an efficient, objective and comprehensive manner. Moreover, digital documentation serves as a form of conservation of objects which deteriorate after being excavated.”

The crucial role played by the 3D methods is well illustrated by the case of the analysis of stone tools found at the Nahal Zihor site, where two different collections of stones were found. Three-dimensional scans and the classification of each collection’s unique characteristics clearly showed a significantly large chronological gap between them. One collection dates back to the time of Israel’s oldest archaeological site Ubeidiya, while the other dates back a few hundred thousand years later. Computerized analysis enabled precise measurement and comparison with other dated collections.

Avshalom Karasik, currently completing his PhD dissertation under the joint supervision of Dr. Sharon and Prof. Smilansky, is responsible for the laboratory’s work on ceramics. He has developed and implemented 3D documentation for pottery studies, including new classification methods, which are of prime importance for establishing relative chronologies and spatial correlations. “In one project, we were able to distinguish between artifacts from two neighboring workshops in the same potter’s village,” says Karasik. “Although identical to the naked eye, it was only through analysis of the 3D modeling that we could discern the distinction.”

On the agenda…

Dr. Grosman: “There are many aspects of archaeology to which our methods could be applied. It would mean the creation of new computer algorithms but the expected rewards would justify such efforts and we are making progress in this direction."

And the vision…

Prof. Smilansky: “To establish computerized archaeology as the accepted practice in a wide number of research areas, so that it serves the archaeologist in the lab or in the field on a daily basis. In doing so, it will also provide a model for the integration of mathematical and computer sciences in research projects conducted in the humanities.”

The Computerized Archaeology Laboratory was established with the assistance of Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation) and in cooperation with the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of Haifa.

[Source: Based on an article in Kav Ba’Reshet, the online Hebrew-language newsletter of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem]