Future of the past

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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Students always ask in my archaeology courses: “But hasn’t everything there is to find already been found?” And I always tell them: “Goodness, I hope not, or I’d be out of job.”

In reality, I know not.

Forty years ago, archaeologists weren’t too concerned to take a soil sample of every square metre of earth they removed the way we are today; or to consider microscopic data such as seeds and pollen analysis to discover new info about landscape and diet of people in the past; nor did they use isotope analysis of teeth to discover where an individual spent their childhood.

We had certainly come a long way since the days of Heinrich Schliemann wandering the sands and fields of Turkey and Greece with his Homer texts, searching for the legendary centers of Troy and Mycenae; but it would have been difficult to imagine, even 40 years ago, the incredible level of detail we can now attain about the human past from hundreds and thousands of years ago – especially considering this information can come from a four-liter bucket of soil.

The other thing I tell my students is they better hold onto their hats this year because one never knows when archaeology will change, when a new discovery will alter everything I’m saying right now.

Okay, so it isn’t always that exciting, but it can be.

Archaeology is a constantly moving target. One day I’m telling students this or that building is absolutely unique in the archaeological record of Italy, and then I get a ‘bing!’ from my Explorator feed, and oh look, they’ve found another one of this or that building. Suddenly, it’s not so lonely out there in the Roman countryside, and our viewpoint shifts, our analysis changes, our understanding of life in the ancient world takes a new trajectory.

So no, not everything has been found; I would argue that we’re not even close.

The next 40 years have as much promise as the last 40.

We will continue to squeeze as much information out of single bone, a bucket of soil or perhaps gain this knowledge without taking spade and trowel to the earth. We can already see below the ground with geophysical prospection equipment, but this will become more reliable, will look deeper into the earth and who knows, a new technique might even collect isotope data and photograph some seeds while it’s down there, without ever even breaking the soil.

Now, I happen to like to make mud patties and get a little bit dusty, so I’d prefer to keep my trowel handy for now, at least until I retire just a bit before 2052. Still the innovation is endless, and it’s not all microscopic.

There are whole cities out there waiting for us to discover, lying dormant under meters of soil, water, rubbish, brick and concrete. Somewhere in the earth around the Mediterranean lie inscriptions written by Romans that will change everything about how we view imperialism or cultural change. Somewhere in the Middle East, there is a complex awaiting discovery that will alter our conception of the relationship between humans and their gods.

We will find new ways to analyze old data. Scientific testing such as ceramic petrography, which takes thin sections of pottery to determine clay sources, will become hand-held and commonplace enough to keep next to the trench for immediate identification of origin and trade patterns. We will do away with clunky and time consuming total stations that survey archaeological features and with a wave of a hand and a click of a button we will produce 3D models of our work that will be ready for analysis in seconds in front of us. We will upload this information into a worldwide database to click in with its immediate surroundings, to fit into its world, to be used immediately by other researchers …

… Unless, of course, it was all built by aliens and they return with the manual …

Until then, you’ll be happy to know archaeologists of today are always thinking about the possibilities of tomorrow, so much so, we intentionally leave parts of sites untouched, awaiting these new technologies.

Time to get to work.

Elizabeth M. Greene is a Classical Studies professor in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.