Archeology is a dirty business, and I'm not just talking about the treacherous black arrowhead market. Arguing with local councils who don't want you digging up their playgrounds, sweating under the sun of the cradle of civilization, nervously shoveling dirt praying you don't chip the depiction of a donkey show off an ancient jar ... If only there were an easier way to take a direct look into the past. Preferably one that no longer involves a shovel but some cool sci-fi technology -- and a kickass quad bike.
This week in Antiquity, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Ghent, Belgium, have published a groundbreaking study on the future of ground-not-breaking archeology. Through the use of ground-penetrating radar, which can bounce radio waves through the soil as easily as through air or water, the team was able to upside-down periscope into the earth and map out an entire buried Roman city all without getting their hands dirty. Except for when they had to use the machines after Carl. That dude's gross.
But this first-ever large scale GPR mapping project hasn't just proven to be remarkably convenient and cheap (all it took was an academic on a quad bike covering billions of data points over farmland like they were sowing the seeds of knowledge), it might be a vastly superior way of uncovering the past. The scanned city in question, Falerii Novi (or New Falerii), gave an unprecedented top-down look into the workings and planning of ancient Roman cities. Not only could the GPR show individual buildings like shops, baths, and temples in incredible detail, it even offered extensive insight into the city's plumbing. It also revealed a religiously relevant procession route around the city -- something that would've been almost impossible to recognize when mucking through the dirt.
GPR can even offer a quasi 4D-map, allowing researchers to track some of the changes made to Falerii Novi from the time the rebellious Faliscans were moved into their new gated community in 241 BC until the suburb was abandoned somewhere around the end of the 8th century AD. And while Falerii Novi was chosen for its conveniently flat and unoccupied location 30 miles north of Rome, the shovel-free echolocation technology has even more exciting potential when used in inhospitable terrains, like sites buried underneath a forest or a Turkish Starbucks. So much potential that co-author Professor Martin Millet believes ground-penetrating radar imaging will become "the way of the future for archeology," finally dragging the past into the 21st century.
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