What can we learn from computational archaeology?


Computational archaeology involves more than taking a laptop to an excavation.
Computational archaeology involves more than taking a laptop to an excavation.
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With traditional archaeology, field workers spend a lot of time digging in the dirt and sand looking for signs of past human activity. It's a very hands-on job, to say the least. But another emerging facet to the field takes the archaeologist out of the sand and puts him or her in front of a computer. It's called computational archaeology, and it's one of the newest applications to a very old science.

Simply put, computational archaeology is when data collected from an archaeological excavation is paired with specific software to draw conclusions that couldn't be drawn through conventional means. The computer programs are specifically designed to "fill in the blanks" through mathematical algorithms, discovering patterns in the archaeological data. Some programs use three-dimensional modeling to simulate what a site might have looked like based on the available information retrieved at an excavation. Or, if a site is physically excavated, a computer program can reproduce it digitally, level by level, until the entire site can be viewed as a three-dimensional model.

Computational archaeology is also used for logging and maintaining digital records of the massive amounts of information a project can generate. And there are even programs that can simulate the behavior of a past human population. For example, let's say human remains are found, but the entire skeleton or skull isn't located. Archaeological computer applications can now help to re-create the missing pieces of the puzzle and render a complete sketch of that person. Not only that, when a human skull is found, a computer program can come up with an image of what that person's face might have looked like, with some degree of accuracy. Additionally, the mobility of a people can be simulated using specialized programs.

Because it's such a new division of archaeology, there aren't many university programs currently teaching computerized methods of research. England leads the way right now, with other European nations following its lead. As this new science gets its legs, we'll begin to have a better understanding of just how much we can learn from computer simulations and modeling based on archaeological finds. The future will undoubtedly help us re-create our past.