Preservation by record

Preservation by record is very much in the news at the moment in relation to attempts by ISIS to destroy cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria in places like Nineveh, Nimrud, Hatra, and the present threat to Palmyra. In some instances, the archaeological response has entailed excavations, in others it has been to begin to use crowd-sourced imagery to digitally reconstruct the heritage that has already been destroyed, or to use satellite and aerial imagery to map unrecorded and endangered sites.

Laser scanning
Laser scanning at Merv
(original by CyArk, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Emma Cunliffe, from the Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project, has suggested that “in some extreme, and particularly devastating, cases, the records may be the only thing left of a culture, in which case we owe it to them to preserve something, anything”. Hard to argue with that, and the article goes on to suggest that one approach to preservation of these sites is the use of archaeological technology to record monuments in high resolution in those areas which are still accessible (Foyle 2015).

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Robotic Archaeology

© Alex Gonzalez for

In an intriguing juxtaposition of ancient and modern technologies, Evan Ackerman reports on the use of a robotic arm by Radu Iovita, Jonas Buchli, and Johannes Pfleging to undertake use-wear analysis of stone tools. The accompanying video shows the robot arm using a stone tool on different materials (hide, wood, stone) and, rather neatly, every 50 scrapes it automatically turns to a microscope to capture an image of the developing wear pattern on the stone tool. Ackerman’s source is a piece by Samuel Schlaefli which contains more background and information about the project. For instance, the robot arm is able to adapt the force it applies in response to the resistance it detects, and the ability to run the experiments 24 hours a day, potentially using multiple robotic arms working simultaneously, is said to enable the creation of massive databases and consequently accelerate the production of knowledge in archaeology and palaeoanthropology about use wear patterns on stone tools.

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