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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Digging in Digital Domain

To unearth secrets from the past, UC San Diego Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Thomas Levy embraces tools of the future.

Over the past 15 years, Levy has directed more than a dozen excavations in Israel and Jordan uncovering the role that technology, especially mining and metallurgy, played in shaping Iron Age (1200-500 BCE) societies. In 1999, he decided his digs should go completely digital.

“We’ve put a lot of energy into how we can best acquire archaeological data in the field with digital tools, as well as how to build a database that we can hang all that data on,” says Levy, associate director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), at the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommuni­cations and Information Technology (Calit2).

In the field, Levy’s team uses portable infrared spectrometers and X-ray fluorescence devices that identify the composition of an artifact, revealing, for example, whether an arrowhead is silver, copper or bronze.

Levy also employs a light detecting and ranging (LiDAR) device that scans an environment from a single building to an entire village, and converts it to a digital depth map composed of billions of spatial points. This preserves the three-dimensional spatial arrangement of an excavation site, including the exact location of each artifact.

These cyberarchaeology tools mean that the team does not have to wait to analyze artifacts and field data until they are back in the lab.

ArchField, a software developed by Levy’s team, collates data from the digital survey tools into a 3-D projection and tags it with GPS coordinates and satellite imagery.

This avalanche of data can be displayed on Calit2’s HIPerSpace wall, one of the world’s highest-resolution displays at 286 million pixels, or in the StarCAVE, a 360-degree, 16-panel immersive virtual-reality environment. These innovations make it just as easy for Levy to bring the field back to the lab as it is to bring the lab to the field.

—Chris Palmer, Ph.D. ’11