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Computational Archaeology—Reviving the Past with Present-Day Tools

Oliver Bimber, Johannes Kepler University Linz
Carl K. Chang, Iowa State University

Pages: pp. 30-31

Abstract—New computational tools support both the discovery and understanding of cultural relics.

All over the world, much of our history—in the form of architecture, artifacts, and other cultural relics—is still buried below ground or under water. New computational tools support both the discovery and understanding of this hidden information.

As the articles in this special issue describe, rather than a whip and machete, the modern-day Indiana Jones uses microfocus X-ray computed tomography (CT), magnetometers, 3D and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) scanners, geographic information systems (GISs), immersive visualization, image analysis, and computer graphics. If you don't think this is exciting enough for a blockbuster movie, then read on.


In "Using Computation to Decode the First Known Computer," Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University and Tony Freeth of Images First Ltd. detail the process of deciphering the Antikythera mechanism. Made in ancient Greece and discovered in 1900 in the wreck of a Roman trading ship off the island of Antikythera in the Mediterranean Sea, this specialized astronomical calculator is the earliest known mechanical "computer." Edmunds and Freeth explain how using surface imaging, microfocus X-ray CT, simple spreadsheets, image analysis, simulations, and advanced animations led their international team to understand what the mechanism could calculate and display. Although the discovery that it had a four-year dial displaying the sequence of the pan-Hellenic games, including the Olympic Games, may imply a social as well as astronomical function, the mechanism's real purpose remains something of an enigma.

In "From Sites to Landscapes: How Computing Technology Is Shaping Archaeological Practice," Vince Gaffney and his collaborators at the University of Birmingham describe how the advanced acquisition and processing of magnetic data has led to new discoveries and insights, such as the "henge" monument excavated near Stonehenge in 2010 as well as findings in the survey of the Roman city of Wroxeter, one of the largest such projects ever attempted. In another project, researchers used 3D seismic data—initially collected for use in oil and gas exploration—to reconstruct Doggerland, a lost Mesolithic landscape that was inundated by the North Sea during the last great period of global warming. Using this technology, rivers, hills, and valleys lost to mankind for more than eight millennia have been traced. The project used agent-based techniques and high-resolution interactive visualization to model settlement patterns in the landscape.

In "3D Models for Cultural Heritage: Beyond Plain Visualization," Roberto Scopigno and his colleagues at the Institute of Information Sciences and Technologies in Pisa describe how the integration of textural descriptions, high-resolution images, and high-detail 3D models can support scholars in their study of cultural heritage artifacts. Researchers have used such tools to conduct a coordinated analytical comparison of Romanesque cloister capitals in the Mediterranean region. The use of such tools also led to the discovery of a surprising shape similarity between a bronze horse statuette by Benvenuto Cellini and an early metalpoint drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. The authors explain how researchers can visualize the evolution of excavation sites to support onsite documentation and describe the use of 3D scanning and computational methods to facilitate the physical reconstruction and virtual restoration of the Pietranico Madonna, which had been severely damaged during a recent earthquake in central Italy.

LiDAR remote sensors generate clouds of billions of data points with precision to 1 mm, creating data scans that researchers can georeference with a GIS. Although this technology is extremely useful for archaeologists, handling such massive datasets is challenging. In "Dealing with Archaeology's Data Avalanche," Vid Petrovic and his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, describe how they approached this challenge. Based on their field work in the ancient copper ore district of Faynan in Jordan led by field archaeologist Thomas Levy, they explain how researchers can revisit archaeological sites virtually and use visual tools to investigate cultural and historic processes.

Because they include metric information for precise documentation that photographs generally can't capture, line drawings are essential tools for archaeologists. However, producing them manually requires an enormous amount of human effort. In "Computer-Assisted Archaeological Line Drawing," Renju Li, Tao Luo, and Hongbin Zha of Peking University and Wei Lu of the Longmen Grottoes Academy present an automated approach to line drawing production using 3D scans. Archaeologists have used this technique in their investigation of the Longmen Grottoes, a cultural heritage site in China. The authors demonstrate that they saved about 479 hours using their computer-assisted line-drawing technique compared to traditional manual line drawing.

Although the authors of these articles are working on diverse projects scattered throughout Europe and Asia, their contributions to this special issue are representative of the emerging field of computational archaeology—the interface where archaeology meets computer science.

About the Authors

Oliver Bimber is the head of the Institute of Computer Graphics at Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria. Contact him at
Carl K. Chang is professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at Iowa State University. Contact him at
See for multi-media content related to the cover features in this issue.
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