Lasers, Robots and the Moon: The Other Face of Archaeology
Archaeologist Terry Madenholm got stung by a bullet ant, woke up with a snake and almost perished in the Ecuadorian Andes– it’s an adventure!
3D mapping project with Drone Archaeology, Ecuador.
I rarely came across a person who when asking about my occupation, hasn’t responded, “as a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist too!” Archaeology is one of those words that in an instant take people back to Indiana Jones movies, to a time when as children they would dream of unknown lands and treasures waiting to be discovered. And although it is not as adventurous and romantic as it might seem to the fans of Indiana, I would not change it for anything else. Let me tell you why.
What most people are unaware of is that archaeology is also full of extremes. It requires a great deal of patience, together with a great dose of perseverance and humility. You don’t always reach your goals and sometimes months or even years of work might be not as fruitful as you wish them to be. It is physically exhausting and mentally challenging. You’re constantly pushing your own limits. You excavate (a fancy word for digging) in countries where temperatures are close to boiling point so waking up around 4 am is the norm and by 5 am you’re at the site warming up. You dig away from civilization, in places that make you forget the rest of the world. Deserts, caves, coastlines, forests, rainforests, you name it! Nature is the archaeologist’s office, so you can expect Mother Earth to intervene, testing your resistance and adaptation skills. Improbable forms of life become your archaeological pets. If foreign relations are not your cup of tea, then excavating close to the border between enemy states, and experiencing occasional rocket attacks, may not be for you.
Archaeological project in the Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador.
Archaeology has been my longest relationship so far, over 10 years of contemplating the idea that I might be slightly masochistic, because, besides being a scientific field (with many hours spent in a lab), archaeology is also undeniably primal. You dig, you sweat, you cover yourself in dirt, all in the name of science. You tell yourself that in archaeology there’s no place for weaklings, yet sometimes you catch yourself with teardrops falling down your cheeks (if you’re not dehydrated). Physical burnout, too high expectations or perhaps the moment when you hold in your blistered hands that special object that awaited all these centuries to be brought back to light. Because the most amazing part of archaeology is when you make a discovery. That’s when the magic happens and when you get to travel in time. Hidden wonders, aka indicators of ancient life, each time make my heart beat faster.
Archeology has become much more technological than what you might think. When thinking about an archaeologist you probably picture a bearded man with a brush cleaning off a piece of bone. False, not just because male archaeologists tend to privilege a clean shave, especially during fieldwork, but let me tell you, archaeology today is all about technology and is undergoing a digital revolution. Let me brief you. Like most of archaeologists, I had the pleasure to put on my hiking shoes and do the traditional field walking. For those who are not acquainted with the term, it refers to a field survey, also known under the even less sexy name of ‘pedestrian surveying’, which aim is to determine the potential archaeological significance of the land. But sometimes there are not enough clues present on the ground for us archaeologists to go on. Laser scanners, satellite imagery and drones are the biggest accelerators in the archaeological field. The introduction of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), initially developed for military use, provides more data in a matter of days than decades-long surveys. So flying above difficult to access, breath-taking landscapes such as the Amazon with the laser attached to a plane never felt more legitimate to me (a most deserving addition to the carbon footprint). And the results are even more breathtaking. Suddenly we see myriads of urban webs emerging from under the canopy. We discover that the Amazon was highly urbanized, densely populated and interconnected with ancient highways connecting cities. Help from the heavens is not to be taken for granted either. Satellite imagery not only makes you feel mighty but also helps outline ancient structures in remote and often extreme areas such as at the Sahara desert, where human settlements start to emerge from the sands of time. A drone equipped with a high-resolution camera or a laser, combined with machine learning, is a powerful tool in identifying hidden features as well. The applications of all these non-invasive technologies give a sense of an eagle eye.
Terry Madenholm, drone surveying (photo. Chris Saunders).
Archeology is also aiming at becoming more sustainable. Excavating, digging, whatever we call it, is a destructive process. The idea of virtually ‘unwrapping’ sites will soon become reality, and de facto we will be able to practice a more responsible archaeology. That means taking all available precautions not to over damage the sites, nor the artifacts. Similar to surgeons, we archaeologists only get one shot at completing a successful archaeological operation. As we begin the process of excavating there is no way to undo things, therefore using robotics will become an essential part of archaeology too. And for those who like to project themselves into the far future, get ready for space archaeology. There is no doubt that just like the footprints left by our distant relatives about 3.66 million years ago at Laetoli, Tanzania, those of Neil Armstrong on the Moon will become relics of a distant past too: a fossil from the time when humankind was taking its first steps beyond Earth, marking our species’ first attempt to explore the universe. The orbital garbage we leave behind, the items left by the astronauts during their missions, will be archaeologists’ playground, studying human activity in space. Archaeology will eventually expand into the solar system.
As a little girl, I wished I were born at the time when the legendary Troy was unearthed. Today I have no doubt that I was born exactly at the right moment (although I’m still looking for my holy grail), and I’m not only talking from a woman’s perspective. There has never been a more exciting time to be an archaeologist. Equipped with the latest tools, we have begun to ask new and bolder questions, not only about our unchartered territory of the past, but also about the future that we are facing as species. The soil has so much more to reveal, and what we’ve seen so far is only a tiny fraction of what is there still to uncover.
Terry Madenholm got stung by a bullet ant, woke up with a snake and almost perished in the Ecuadorian Andes while working on an archaeological – exploration projects. With an MA in Classical Art and Archaeology from King’s College London, she was involved in research projects at the British Museum (Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan & Department of Greece and Rome) and an archival digitization project at the Natural History Museum (Department of Life Sciences). Terry is a project partner for Drone Archaeology (dronearchaeology.com).