Archaeology has been transformed by modern technologies that have provided amazing insights into our understanding and also added new questions. DNA will tell us where people came from, strontium will tell us where they lived, and facial reconstruction allows us to see what people looked like. Here are some of the technologies that are commonly used in archaeology:
1. Carbon dating
Carbon dating is a technique that has been used since the 1950s to determine the age of organic materials, such as bone, wood, and charcoal. It is based on the decay of the radioactive isotope carbon-14, and it provides a reliable way to date archaeological sites and artefacts. See
- C14 Radiocarbon Dating – Index – Edinburgh, Cramond Roman Forth
- A multi-isotope (C, N, O, Sr, Pb) study of Iron Age and Roman period skeletons from east Edinburgh, Scotland exploring the relationship between decapitation burials and geographical origins (Musselburgh Roman skeletons)
2. Aerial Photographs
Since the 1950’s historians have used aerial photography to identify ancient remains. The advent of crops that grow to the same height also allowed crop marks to be identified.
Easter Happrew Fort discovered in 1955 from RAF photos
3. Field Walking
Modern ploughing regularly brings Roman artefacts to the surface ( as well as removing camp fortifications with deeper ploughs). During field walking, archaeologists typically walk in straight lines or a grid pattern, covering the entire surface of the area being surveyed. They may use tools such as metal detectors to help identify buried artefacts or features that are not visible on the surface. As artefacts and other features are identified, they are mapped and recorded using GPS or other surveying tools. This information can be used to create a detailed picture of the archaeological site or area, including the types of artefacts present, their distribution across the landscape, and their relationship to other features or structures.
Mumrills Roman Fort and Trimontium at Newstead are two locations where Roman items have been discovered.
- Fieldwalking ( Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society)
- FIELDWALKING FINDS FROM BERTHA, DALGINROSS AND STRAGEATH (Gask Project)
4. DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) analysis
DNA analysis is used to study the genetic makeup of ancient humans and animals. It helps archaeologists understand migration patterns, genetic relationships between populations, and other aspects of ancient life. See
- Mysterious ‘painted people’ of Scotland are long gone, but their DNA lives on – Pictish DNA study
- Scotland’s genetic landscape reflects Dark Age populations
5. Dendrochronology (tree ring dating)
Dendrochronology is useful for determining the precise age of samples, especially those that are too recent for radiocarbon dating, which always produces a range rather than an exact date. For Roman timbers found it allows exact dating of the timber. The fort at Carlisle was accurately dated using this method.
6. LIDAR (Laser Imaging, Detection, And Ranging)
LiDAR can see through trees to map landscapes, identify archaeological sites, and locate buried features. See
- Archaeologists Discover 134 Ancient Settlements North of Hadrian’s Wall using LIDAR
- Lasers reveal ‘lost’ Roman roads
- What is LiDAR? How Archaeologists See Through Forests to Find Ancient Ruins
A geophysical survey is a method used in archaeology to study the subsurface features of an archaeological site without physically excavating it. This method involves the use of various non-invasive techniques that measure the physical properties of the soil and other materials in order to create a map of the underlying features.
Some common geophysical survey methods used in archaeology include:
- Ground-penetrating radar (GPR): This technique uses radar pulses to create an image of the subsurface. The radar waves are reflected back to the surface by different materials at different depths, allowing archaeologists to identify buried structures and features.
- Electrical resistivity tomography (ERT): This technique measures the electrical resistance of the soil to an electrical current, which can indicate the presence of buried features.
- Magnetometry: This technique measures the magnetic properties of the soil, which can be affected by the presence of buried features such as hearths, kilns, or metal objects.
- Soil conductivity survey: This technique measures the conductivity of the soil, which can be used to identify buried features and structures.
- EAFS Geophysical Survey Services
- An ancient Roman city has been fully mapped using ground-penetrating radar
8. Satellite Photographs
Modern technology allows us to use satellite imagery to identify ancient remains. Google Earth is particularly good as you can look at photos of an area through time and during drought or wet conditions crop marks can be seen more easily. A favourite picture is Lyne Roman Fort.
9. 3D scanning and printing
3D scanning and printing technologies are used to create accurate digital replicas of artefacts, bones, and even entire archaeological sites. This technology helps archaeologists study and analyze objects without damaging them.
10. GIS (Geographic Information Systems)
GIS can be used to analyze and manage spatial data that gives a greater understanding of relationships or even just to find features while out and about with a smartphone. Archaeologists use GIS to create maps, analyze landscape features, and track the movement of ancient populations.
- Find Romans in Your Area of Scotland (GIS map in Google Maps)
- Romans, Rivers and Valleys – physical map of Scotland with forts and camps
11. Facial Reconstruction
Modern criminal and cinema techniques have been used to find out what our ancestors looked like.
- Roman Emperor Project – Images by Voshart as used on this website with his permission
- Neolithic Dog Skull – Reconstruction of what a dog looked like
Drones are used to capture aerial imagery of archaeological sites and landscapes. They provide a cost-effective way to map large areas and identify potential archaeological features.
13. Desk-based Assessment
The assessment is carried out using existing records, documents, maps, and any available data without conducting physical excavations or fieldwork. It is typically one of the initial steps in the process of conducting archaeological research or preparing for development projects that may impact archaeological resources. See WHAT ARE ARCHAEOLOGICAL DESK-BASED ASSESSMENTS AND WHAT HAVE THEY UNCOVERED IN SCOTLAND?