Archaeology is all about exploring humanity’s past – our evolution, our migration across the globe, and our great civilizations. To this end, archaeologists examine the artifacts and structures left behind by our ancestors, including broken pottery, discarded tools, crumbling monuments, and abandoned houses. More simply put, archaeologists study the all-but-forgotten remains of bygone eras in human history.

But this doesn’t mean that the field of archaeology itself is antiquated or out of date. That is, despite focusing on the ancient and decaying vestiges of people long dead, archaeologists often employ cutting edge scientific methods borrowed from fields like organic chemistry, geology, and biology. These approaches have contributed immensely to understandings of our past. Just think, people who submit saliva samples to 23andMe can now find out just how much Neanderthal DNA they have thanks to collaborations between archaeologists and geneticists.

In a more recent foray into foreign fields, archaeologists have discovered the utility of 3D modeling, learning to use gadgets and software normally in the domain of video game developers or animators. Aside from being just plain cool, 3D modeling has allowed archaeologists to document and analyze the past in ways that were never possible before. In the field, lab, and classroom, 3D modeling is becoming an important technological tool.

In the Field

During archaeological excavations, small portions of the earth are systematically explored by carefully digging square or rectangular holes called units. The dirt from these excavation units is generally sifted to reveal buried artifacts – pottery pieces, animal bones, or even charred seeds and nuts. But sometimes larger materials and features, like stone foundations, post holes, dirt floors, whole pots, or hearths, are uncovered. Traditionally, because archaeological interpretation often hinges upon accurate understandings of in situ context, archaeologists use measuring tapes and large sheets of graph paper – defenseless against the elements – in order to document the original locations of their findings within an excavation.

Nowadays, 3D modeling has made hand-drawn maps a thing of the past, much like the things they depict. With a methodology called structure-from-motion photogrammetry (SfM), archaeologists need only take a series of overlapping photos of an excavation unit or artifact – similar to the technique used to create landscape panoramas. Using a specialized software program, they can then stitch these photos together and manipulate them to fit within the three-dimensional space of an archeological excavation. The result is a high-quality, georeferenced 3D model of the unit and its materials, which the archaeologist can easily access, duplicate, and analyze once they have left the field. No more tedious map drawing.

Wall Site Excavation Unit, Hillsborough, NC by RLA Archaeology on Sketchfab

In the Lab

Excavations constitute only one stage of an archaeological research project. The materials recovered from the earth must be processed, analyzed, and stored. Archaeologists often wish to study artifact collections many years after excavations take place. Generally, this requires traveling to a museum, university, or historical society to sort through stored materials. However, through the use of SfM photogrammetry as well as 3D laser scanners, many archaeologists are now creating 3D models of previously excavated artifacts and uploading them to online platforms such as Sketchfab. This means that rather than visiting a collection in person, which often requires institutional permission and considerable funds, researchers are now able to simply websurf to virtual 3D artifact exhibits. An additional boon is that these models are often freely downloadable and can be further analyzed (i.e. measured, magnified, enhanced, or even printed) using software like Photoshop or Adobe Acrobat.

Moundville Engraved Bottle by RLA Archaeology on Sketchfab

For the Public

Beyond the obvious benefits to archaeologists, the 3D modeling of artifacts and archaeological sites has also become an important part of educating students and the public about cultural heritage, both locally and globally. A particularly successful example of this interface between archaeology and education is the ongoing 3D modeling program at the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since 2015, students and professors here have been creating 3D models of their excavations as well as the artifacts stored in the university’s archaeological collections. These models are not only freely available to the public via the Research Laboratories’ Sketchfab profile, but they have also been integrated into a virtual museum – Ancient North Carolinians. This online exhibition seeks to educate the public about the cultural heritage of North Carolina, offering a slew of teaching tools and classroom activities focused on the state’s indigenous and colonial past.

UNC’s 3D modeling program is part of a larger movement in the field of archaeology aimed at safeguarding important cultural resources. Archaeologists’ continued use of digital heritage resources for public outreach stands to bolster efforts to protect endangered archaeological sites and their artifacts for future study and edification. Indeed, resources like these will surely inspire the next generation of archaeologists to continue pushing the boundaries of scientific innovation in the quest to uncover humanity’s past.

Peer-edited by Connor LaMontagne. 

Feature photo and 3D models courtesy of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology, UNC-Chapel Hill.

One Reply to “Modern Technology, Ancient Past: 3D Modeling in Archaeology”

  1. This is a fabulous Introduction to the field of archeology and provides wonderful examples of state of art approaches now enabled by computer
    graphics. Kudos to Madeleine Azar!

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