Technological innovations in the geospatial profession have been extraordinary in the last few years, so much so that other professions and industries have adopted its hardware and software to improve their own workflows. But it can be a bit surprising to learn that archaeology, a profession deeply rooted in the past, embraces such modernization.

Archaeologists have long used surveying tactics prior to beginning excavation projects, but a revolution of sorts is taking place in the profession, as more and more archaeologists turn to noncontact and nondestructive methods. A recent article noted that about 15 percent of archaeologists worldwide have adopted these tools.

That’s where laser scanning and airborne LiDAR data acquisition to study the past comes in. Data from these remote sensing applications is often being turned into 3D models and 3D animations, prior to or even instead of a trowel digging into earth.

Alice Wright, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, used magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar to identify features of a Middle Woodland village (300 B.C. to 600 A.D.) in what is now western North Carolina. Magnetometry is a technique which measures and maps soil patterns. Burnt materials show up on the scans, allowing archaeologists to identify potential places for further study.

At the Native American site now in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, Wright used these scans to turn the data into 3D animations that displayed below-ground features such as pits, hearths and earthworks.

“By combining geophysics with traditional archaeological field methods, we identified some of the strongest evidence for long distance, ritualized interaction (between different native peoples) presently known for the Middle Woodland period,” Wright wrote in an email to GeoDataPoint, “and we are now able to carefully track how ancient communities that were normally separated by hundreds of miles came together to build monuments, forge and maintain social relationships, and effect changes in their local societies. And we wouldn't have been able to do any of this without geophysics. We would have never known this archaeology was there.”

Faraz Ravi, director of product management for point clouds at software provider Bentley Systems, said 3D animations through programs such as Bentley’s Pointools have been known to produce some startling archaeological discoveries.

“It enables you to understand and examine that data not only in a noncontact way, but also from viewpoints you simply cannot access in the real world,” he said. “That’s its true value.”

An archaeology team at ArcHeritage, a division of York Archaeological Trust in England, recently used ground-penetrating radar data and 3D animation software to uncover a lost garden at an estate in London. The discovery came without the aid of a shovel.

“It gives us the ability to see things we can’t actually see any other way,” said Marcus Abbott, leader of the geomatics and visualization team at ArcHeritage, which typically uses cutting-edge technology in its archaeological investigations. “So it’s an exploration tool that’s allowing us to understand the past much better than before.”

Abbott said these tools are important because they don’t disrupt or destroy the landscape or the objects being studied. In addition, remote sensing allows for research at sites that are otherwise protected by governments.

“Excavation is really the last resort. If you can gain information from these techniques, then it’s extremely valuable,” he said.

Geospatial companies around the world are seeing the value in archaeological investigations, too. 3D Laser Mapping, a Nottingham, England-based provider of software and hardware, has begun to focus on the heritage sector. It is marketing its handheld laser scanners to archaeologists.

Earlier this year, the company hosted a workshop for archaeologists to test its two handheld laser scanners, the Mantis Vision MVC-F5 and the ZEB1, on old bones and in caves that featured rock art dating to the last ice age. The MVC-F5 provided scans on the sub-millimeter level, while the ZEB1 was useful for mapping the entire cave at 5 millimeters. The products were designed for people with little or no experience in laser scanning.

“Used together, there’s a lot of interest (from) archaeologists and heritage people,” said Graham Hunter, 3D Laser Mapping’s executive chairman. “They can use the Mantis Vision high-accuracy object scanner for doing … very high resolution (scans). The heritage people and the archaeologists have a lot of trouble with caves and irregularly shaped buildings, trying to survey and do a floor plan for them. The Zeb1 scanner is perfect for that.”