New technology helps us excavate ancient history

I’ve been writing a lot about archaeology over at Ars Technica, and one of the topics that fascinates me is the ways scientists are using new technologies to “dig up” ancient sites without ever disturbing a single blade of grass.

Recently a group of archaeologists used a LiDAR system to uncover the massive city grid around the temple at Ankgor Wat. This provided the first solid evidence of what most scientists and historians had long suspected: this temple was merely the centerpiece of a huge, sprawling city that held at least a million people during its height in the 13th century. This is a terrific tale of finding a lost city using lasers, airplanes, and good historical sources.

And this week a group of archaeologists and computer imaging specialists revealed how they used micro-CT scans–a high resolution version of the CT scans you get in the hospital–to virtually unwrap an extremely damaged biblical scroll from the ancient oasis settlement of En-Gedi. Excavated in the 1970s, the scroll resembled a charred lump of coal. But creating a high-resolution 3D image of the scroll, then using algorithms to map the surfaces of its parchment, the researchers were able to reconstruct what was written on its pages. Turns out it’s the first two chapters of Leviticus. And it has a lot of interesting implications.

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