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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Hidden parts of deep human history are being revealed by digital tools that generate new troves of data for archaeologists to analyze and preserve.

Why it matters: On-the-ground excavation can be expensive, time-intensive and destructive. Digital techniques — if researchers can access them — could help to focus their search and hasten discoveries.

  • Archaeology for the past 150 years has been a "hit and miss practice," says Elaine Sullivan, an Egyptologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
  • "These new technologies are allowing us to think more carefully about where we do hand excavation and where we can learn without excavating at all."

What's happening: Light detecting and ranging (lidar) measurements, virtual reality, 3D modeling and other technologies have become powerful tools for archaeologists.

  • Aircraft-based lidar — which emits a laser pulse and measures the return time of light reflected from an object or feature of a landscape to determine the distance to it — can penetrate vegetation and give a precise 3D image of the ground below.
  • But it has also revealed massive features concealed by their sheer size, even in more open land.

In a recent study, archaeologists analyzed lidar data and found nearly 500 new Mesoamerican sites across a large swath of southern Mexico.

  • "Many sites were hidden in plain sight," says archaeologist Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona.
  • The structures were likely built between 1050 B.C. and 400 B.C., and features of their remnants suggest the Olmec and the Maya civilizations interacted, Inomata and his colleagues report in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The intrigue: Mayans built a large structure — Aguada Fénix — between 1,000 and 800 B.C., just as they were transitioning to a more sedentary way of life, but "we don't see evidence of very much developed social inequality," Inomata says.

  • The site — and a handful of others — is part of emerging evidence that suggests the construction of monuments, cultural centers and other features of civilization might not depend on societies developing the hierarchy and inequality that was long seen as an inevitable consequence of development.

What's next: Where there's data, there's usually AI close behind, and archaeologists are adapting algorithms to analyze lidar and other data from remote sensing.

  • Leila Character, a graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin, is training a deep learning algorithm for object detection on more than 17,000 features of structures Inomata mapped at one archaeological site. She plans to then run the algorithm on unlabeled data from other sites to try to then find new sites, with confirmation in the field to follow.
  • "You have to ground truth check your results," says Character, who is also using AI to spot shipwrecks from sonar and lidar imagery. "This is not a replacement for archaeological fieldwork."
  • Mapping a large archaeological site can take years without lidar data and days or weeks if the data is available but has to be analyzed by a person. By combining remote sensing and machine learning, it can be done in a day, Character says.

But, but, but: Lidar data is expensive to collect — Inomata's came from a survey done by the Mexican government — compared to other techniques, though less costly than traditional archaeological digs. Some governments also don't allow planes to be flown over sites.

  • And in these early days of AI archaeological analysis, there aren't standard operating procedures for how people are labeling data or what models are being used, Character says.

Artifacts are also getting the digital treatment.

  • Elizabeth Thill, an archaeologist at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, is working on a project to create 3D scans of about 1,000 marble fragments of the Great Marble Map of Rome, which is thought to depict every ground floor room in ancient Rome.
  • She and her colleagues are creating a VR experience where fragments can be viewed, turned around and set next to others to study them in ways they can't with the actual marble pieces — which range in size from a grapefruit to 150-pound pieces. They're also looking to use AI to piece together the fragments.

What to watch: How the field moves to preserve and standardize all this amassing data.

  • It's not just information about structures and artifacts themselves, but also about the environment objects are excavated from that contains valuable information about connections between artifacts.
  • These objects can never be excavated again, says Sullivan, who is using GIS and 3D modeling to recreate Saqqara, Egypt's oldest known pyramid built around 2630 B.C., and its surroundings.
  • "In 150 years, are archaeologists going to be able to access and reuse this digital data?" Sullivan says. "If the answer is no, we have a real problem."

Go deeper

Progressives call for swift Boebert punishment

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush (far right) walk through the Capitol last month. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

House progressives are seeking concrete punishment for Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) as retribution for her incendiary remarks against one of their own, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Why it matters: House Democratic leaders continue to consider their options amid the latest ugly incident in their chamber. Republicans are already threatening retaliation after Democrats stripped Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) of her committee assignments and censured Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.).

4 hours ago - Health

Meta removes accounts linked to COVID disinformation effort by China

Facebook's corporate headquarters campus in Menlo Park, California. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Meta announced Wednesday it has removed over 600 Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to a Chinese influence operation that claimed the U.S. was pressuring the World Health Organization (WHO) to blame COVID on China.

Why it matters: Though Meta said the network was unsuccessful, it marks yet another COVID disinformation campaign instigated by China in an effort to discredit the U.S.

Stacey Abrams launches second campaign for Georgia governor

Photo: Eze Amos/Getty Images

Stacey Abrams, voting rights activist and former 2018 candidate for Georgia governor, is running for the position again in 2022. Abrams would be the first Black female governor in the country.

Why it matters: Abrams caught national attention in 2018 by narrowly losing an election to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in a state held firmly by the GOP for nearly two decades.