Digging Deep Digitally

Researchers at Columbia University are building digital tools to dig up facts about our past.
Ask most folks what archaeologists are like, and chances are you'll get one of two answers: They'll describe a swashbuckling Indiana Jones type, having rousing adventures; or a dusty academic, painstakingly digging holes in the ground with tiny spades and dental picks.

But the truth is much more high-tech, and researchers at Columbia University are building digital tools to dig up more facts about our past. The team, led by computer science professor Peter Allen, has just received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop 3-D computer modeling techniques. "This is a big way to make archaeology more efficient, more productive, and more accurate," Allen says. "Archaeologists are extremely excited about this."

When the team wants to examine a particular site, it uses a mobile robot to shoot digital scans of the site from several angles. The rover is equipped with a laser scanner that can take highly detailed above-ground shots and a radar sensor that's capable of shooting deep underground to detect buried structures.

The data from the scans are run through a computer, which builds a highly detailed 3-D model of the site. Researchers can then examine details without having to dig or damage a structure and can even lead people through virtual-reality tours of the site. The technique has been successfully tested at sites near Columbia's Manhattan campus, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and at a cathedral in France, Allen says. The next step is to test the tools at a unique site in the western desert of Egypt.

The Amheida site, in the Dakhla Oasis, is a large settlement more than 5,000 years old that has never been excavated, making it perfect for researchers' needs. As the site is excavated, the scanned 3-D model will be linked to a database of the entire site, helping excavators see where artifacts were found, view annotations, and put the whole site in context. The investigating team plans to make much of this computerized data available online as it progresses, letting academics and the general public around the world share in the discoveries.

The technology also could have significant applications outside the academic world, Allen says. Engineers could use the scanners to analyze damaged buildings, such as those near the World Trade Center, to monitor their status and make a detailed analysis of their structural integrity. "You may not have all the computer models that you'd like to, so you have to get a model in the machine somehow," Allen says.

The system also could be used to reverse-engineer old mechanical parts for which there's no longer a means of production. Users could scan and model an old part, then have the computer manufacture a perfect working reproduction.