Jordan dig goes hi-tech with 3D, x-rays and iPads
September 9, 2011
By Darla Martin Tucker
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – (www.lasierra.edu) In years past, La Sierra University’s archaeologists and their students jotted down on field notebooks and writing tablets the color, size, shape and other details of artifacts dug from the parched soil of Jordan.
But this July, amid the ruins of the university’s long-standing Tall al-‘Umayri excavation on the Madaba Plains, archaeologists walked around the dig area carrying three Apple iPad computers encased in protective covers to keep out the dust. Where ancient civilizations once chronicled their histories on pottery with ink-dipped styluses of wood or reed, archaeologists typed data into the thin, notebook-sized computers describing objects dug from the brown earth; biblical-era ceramic vessels, a lamp, a broken chalice decorated with a face image, farm walls from 150 B.C. They essentially transcribed and preserved the stories of patriarchal peoples in modern digital form. “We’re moving to a paperless dig,” said Doug Clark, professor of biblical studies and archaeology and associate dean of La Sierra’s School of Religion. Use of the iPads is an environmentally friendly way to record information and to allow scholars easier, faster access to research data, Clark said. A former executive director of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Boston, Mass., Clark has excavated major sites on central Jordan’s Madaba Plains since 1973. He currently leads the Tall al-‘Umayri dig.
The School of Religion offers a minor in archaeology and houses the university’s archaeological endeavors that include biennial excavations in Jordan; the annual Archaeology Discovery Weekend slated this year for Nov.12-13 with a focus on Egypt; and a junior archaeology program for elementary students.
Clark and a group of 10 people from La Sierra and other schools flew to Jordan at the beginning of July to excavate a portion of the Tall al-‘Umayri site in an effort to help a University of Chicago doctoral student gather information for a dissertation. It was an off-season, tightly focused dig outside of La Sierra’s typical dig seasons involving large groups of students and faculty.
The team’s unprecedented use of technology at Tall al-‘Umayri encompassed more than iPad computers. Jennifer Helbley, La Sierra assistant professor of chemistry participated in the excavation by employing a handheld x-ray fluorescent spectrometer. The device can pinpoint various elements in the soil to help distinguish soil layers and features. Researchers can then understand the subtle differences between layers and better interpret use and function. “Normally there’s a very fine distinction between the soil layers, but this device can tell us,” Clark said.
The team also used a newly purchased tripod and extendable photography boom that pushes a camera out 40 feet allowing overhead digital shots of the entire excavation. Workers mark with bright tape areas they want to photograph. Next they take a photo using a wireless camera trigger and upload the image to a computer. They can manipulate the images using a geographic information systems and three-dimensional software to reconstruct the site, or a portion of the site in three-dimensional graphics, complete with objects and walls in place.
A geographic positioning system unit owned by Andrews University in Michigan also helped archaeologists determine within less than a centimeter levels where artifacts could be found.
La Sierra senior religious studies major Kazar Ackerman joined the excavation team in fulfillment of requirements for a biblical archaeology minor. He worked as a square supervisor, entered data on an iPad computer, led a small crew, drew balk drawings, excavated and sifted soil. Outside of his work at the dig site, Ackerman attended basketball and soccer games in Amman and traveled to Israel for five days. It was his first dig, his first visit to the Middle East, and ultimately a life-changing experience.
“What I learned is that we know little about our fellow human beings half way across the world and it would be great if at least once in our lifetime we would get the opportunity to go out there and see for ourselves the culture of a people who we only hear about on the news and see in movies or television,” Ackerman said. “The picture is almost always negative, but what I saw was positive and exciting.” Ackerman is a pastoral assistant for youth ministries at Campus Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Loma Linda. While he does not plan to pursue archaeology as a career, he aims to join future excavations in Madaba. “I enjoyed every minute out there and I want to experience it more,” he said.
Archaeology program leaders have been experimenting with and demonstrating new technologies on campus before deploying them in the field. Biology faculty and students in the lab of Dr. Lee Greer used a DNA analyzer to determine the familial relationships between four individuals whose bones archaeologists found in a four-room house, a milestone discovery. “This was a stunning success even if the DNA analysis forced us to revise our story about four members of a family who died violently in their home 3,200 years ago,” Clark said. DNA research showed that one of the individuals was not part of the family, he said.
Use of technology in the field is becoming “obligatory if not standard among leading excavations,” said Kent Bramlett, assistant professor of archaeology at La Sierra. He has participated in large digs in Jordan and Turkey. Classes he teaches at La Sierra include those on ancient Akkadian, an old Babylonian language written with wedge-shaped impressions on clay. However, “many technologies are still in the experimental stage and developing rapidly,” including three-dimensional digital scanning and modeling of pottery pieces which La Sierra will undertake this coming school year, Bramlett said. The ability to scan and digitally recreate a pottery shard on computer and examine it at many angles will enable archaeologists to create precise pottery plates, comparative drawings of pottery from excavations, he said.
Ritz Carlton or Walmart?
Pottery plates, or archaeological drawings are usually penciled painstakingly by hand and inked on special paper. These drawings are the “bread and butter of archaeology,” says Bramlett. “This is most often how we date buildings and occupation layers.” In the same way that the sorts of cars in parking lots can identify a decade, details of a piece of pottery help archaeologists determine its era. “And pottery from a palace will look different from a rural village just as the cars in a parking lot of a Ritz Carlton will have some models you probably wouldn’t see by a Walmart,” Bramlett said. Three-dimensional scanning of pottery allows “new and more effective ways to compare pottery from neighboring and more distant sites to better define the relationships between ancient communities,” he said.
Zippy new software, cameras and computers may speed the analysis of found artifacts, but for archaeologists, including those newer to the field, the attraction and mystery of unearthing secrets of the past remains a key draw. “There is a basic element of curiosity—‘what will I find when I reach the floor of this room I’m excavating?’” explains Bramlett. “But more generally, and significantly, the results begin to flesh out answers to larger questions; ‘what was life like in Bible times, three millennia ago?’”
“Archaeology is a particularly important endeavor now because modernization and land development in the region in which I work (the Middle East) has reached a feverish pace and we do not know how much will be left for future generations to study,” Bramlett says. “Archaeology provides a frame upon which the details of stories make sense. It connects us to the people of the past, who, like us struggled or prospered, lived and loved, and died.”
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