New tech to reveal old secrets

In the news recently there have been a flurry of mortuary related articles discussing the application of new technology. What we can learn from bones and artifacts changes drastically over time as technology improves. It is only in the past few decades that we have been able to use strontium and stable isotopes to gain information about migration and diet. While x-rays have been around for the past century, the use of them to look at skeletons for bioarchaeology is more recent. Using new technology not only allows us to gain access to new information, it protects the past. Many techniques, like isotope analysis, require destruction of small amounts of bone. Although over time as it improves, less bone is needed for the sample. As our methods and techniques improve we can find new ways to analyze materials with less loss of material.

CT scanning is a type of x-ray used to generate a three dimensional image of the inside of an object from two dimensional x-ray images taken around a single axis of rotation. Since the process is non-destructive it is extremely useful for looking inside of objects that we do not want to break open (ergo its traditional use to look at the soft tissue inside the human body or the brain). Recently CT scanning was used to look inside a mummy, a bog body and Roman burial urns. By doing CT scans of the mummy they were able to determine that it contains a child, 7-9 years old, and that the internal organs were left intact. One interesting find was that the skull was cracked post-mortem and there were beetles inside the body. This suggests that the mummification process was not carefully done, or that the body was left a while before it was treated. The CT scans of the Worsley Man bog body revealed that he was strangled, seen by the presence of ligature marks on the neck. Finally, CT scans of Roman era cremation urns from Britain were scanned in order to determine their contents and stratigraphy. Urns are difficult to excavate internally since the stratigraphy doesn’t necessarily follow the same as that in normal excavations. Also, by disturbing the covers one may destroy the entire internal context. The scan revealed that two of the five urns do have human remains and are stable enough for microexcavation. In the future if these scans improve we might not need to excavate urns like this at all, we could do our complete analysis from the scanned images.

Technology unlocks secrets of an ancient mummy, Popular Archaeology 2011

Iron Age murder mystery and CT scans, Daily Mail 2012

Secrets of St Albans’ Roman burial urns unlocked, BBC News 2012

Another way of exploring the past at a vastly different level is using Google Earth to look for archaeology sites. With the introduction of planes in , it became possible to do aerial archaeology. This means locating sites from above. Sites are identified by the presence of low or high areas, or places of discoloration in comparison to the broader landscape. Not only can we find sites, but we can look at the relationship between them. Flying over areas is not always cost effective. With the introduction of Google Earth this changed drastically. Now archaeologists can do work from their armchairs. For mortuary archaeology this can be important in finding mounds, tombs and cemeteries. By being aware of the location of these sites, not only does it give us the opportunity to potentially excavate, but we can better protect them. In Oregon and Washington, a company is beginning to map every known cemetery and creating plug-ins for Google Earth. Having more of these would aid in protecting our own cemeteries, which prevents them from being plowed over and turned into parking lots (see this post for an example of this happening)

Google Earth Archaeology, Past Horizons 2011

Google Earth Plug-In, Cemetery Seeker

What technology or digital tools have you found useful for mortuary archaeology?

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2 responses to “New tech to reveal old secrets

  1. Another use (although since the 1980s): Taking cross-sectional images of long bones and specific points, then running each section through appropriate computer programs to understand how activity and mobility patterns over adolescent/adult life caused the bone to remodel in response to stress. From this, individual, sex-specific and diachronic population level data regarding key aspects of daily life (work and travel across the landscape) can be understood. Getting access to CT technology in the field or a remote museum is the challenge (with viable alternatives available), but if you can, you’re set!

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