New advances in technology benefit the discovery and identification of the oldest artifacts and features in archaeology. In fact, technological advances that have been applied to archaeology have become critical to archaeological research.
Here are five of the most important tech breakthroughs in the field of archaeology
1. Carbon Dating
Radiocarbon dating or carbon-14 dating has become an extremely important technique in modern archaeology.
Carbon dating accurately determines the age of organic materials up to approximately 60,000 years. It works by studying how much decay has occurred over time to the carbon-14 isotope. According to UChicago News, the procedure is based on the fact that during life, all living organisms (think trees, plants, people, and animals) absorb carbon-14 into their tissue. At death, the carbon-14 starts to change into other atoms as time goes on. By measuring the remaining carbon-14 atoms an organism has, scientists can estimate how long the organism has been dead.
This method was pioneered in the late 1940s by Willard Libby at the University of Chicago. While the dating does require testing a piece of archaeological material, it is an efficient tool to place archaeological finds into a reasonable timeline.
Carbon-14 dating has proven to be a game-changer in the field of archaeology, allowing researchers to accurately date more recent finds.
2. CT Scanning
X-ray computed tomography scanning, or CT scans have been used for medical purposes since 1972. When used in the fields of archaeology, anthropology and paleontology, CT scans are called “paleoradiology.” This manner of viewing ancient remains is non-invasive in nature.
For archaeological purposes, paleoradiology is used primarily to examine mummified remains. In mummies, CT scanning creates images of soft tissue, organs and body cavities without having to resort to an invasive and damaging autopsy. CT scanners work by taking images on multiple radiographic planes. Spliced together, these 3D pictures can be turned and viewed to provide minute details. CT scans of mummies, for example provide information about the torso and cranium, bone fractures and even the presence or absence of organs—all without inflicting any damage to the specimen.
3. Ground Penetrating Radar
Ground Penetrating Radar or GPR is a groundbreaking technology (literally) that has changed the face of modern archaeology.
Like CT scans, GPR is a non-invasive technology. GPR allows scientists to take a peek below the surface of the ground. By using GPR, some of the guesswork is taken out of archaeology. With GPR, archaeologists can make more educated decisions on where to dig and how deep to dig.
GPR works by sending an electromagnetic pulse into the ground and then reading the results sent back off surfaces. The technology doesn’t show exactly what is underground, but indicates irregularities and general shapes. It’s been used to help archaeologists identify the location of features such as buildings, burial sites and tunnels and myriad archaeological artifacts.
The first GPR was released in1974 by Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc., the leading manufacturer of the technology to this day. Archaeologists use records and maps to locate a general site and then GPR to pinpoint down a specific dig target. In this way, archaeologists are able to be more efficient in their excavations.
See how Everick Heritage in Australia uses GPR in their work.
LiDAR or Light Detection and Ranging is a technology that works like x-ray vision for objects that are hidden in plain site. The technology works by directing pulses of light toward the ground and measuring the time it takes for the light to reflect back. LiDAR then generates a virtual 3D map from a single large-scale survey.
This tech can render years of surveying landscapes to an exercise that takes a single afternoon. It provides a millimeter-scale resolution to map topography, a task virtually unimaginable just a few decades ago. LiDar has changed the face of archaeology by allowing archaeologists to better plan excavations and spot archaeological sites wouldn’t normally see with the naked eye.
LiDAR gives archaeologists the ability to measure and map objects and structures that might otherwise remain hidden. It’s proven especially invaluable in finding structures that are hidden by dense jungles. In Mexico alone, archaeologists have discovered nearly 500 new Mesoamerican sites built by the Maya and the Olmec thanks to LiDAR. One of the most well-known examples of its use was the discovery of La Ciudad Perdida in Colombia in 2012, an excavation expedition only given the go-ahead due to LiDar images proving its existence.
Read about Four discoveries made with LiDAR
5. Sodium Phosphate Dating
Although this method of archaeological research is still in testing, sodium phosphate dating is a promising new technology that provides an innovative method for extracting DNA from bones and teeth without damaging them. This process involves dunking the artifact in a sodium phosphate solution at higher and higher temperatures, each level of heat revealing more DNA evidence. The method was developed at the Max Planck Institute in Germany in 2023. Researchers tested the solution on a deer tooth pendant found in Siberia. From it, they were able to extract the DNA of the animal it came from plus the woman who wore it between 18,000 - 25,000 years ago. The phosphate solution does not give as accurate a timeline as carbon dating, but its DNA discovery capabilities surpass most common archaeology technology at this time.
According to Elena Essel in the scientific journal Nature, who was involved in the development of the method, “In comparison with other solutions, sodium phosphate doesn’t dissolve the bone matrix to release the DNA,” By adding extra phosphate, it allows for the “release [of] DNA from the bone matrix without reducing the bone itself.”
Technological advances play an increasingly important role in archaeology, with new technologies continuously under development and in testing. By joining an archaeology dig as a citizen scientist, you can get the chance to see how these new technologies work, firsthand.
If you’re interested to learn more, check out Ancient Odyssey’s archaeology digs to see the science in action!