Neal Spencer likes to travel light. Spencer is an archeologist and keeper of the Egypt and Sudan department at the British Museum, and he makes regular trips to Sudan in northeast Africa. His current dig is at the site of an ancient walled town occupied by Egypt’s pharaohs from around 1500 to 1070 B.C. For these expeditions, he usually packs trowels and brushes, notebooks, cameras, water filters, laptops, and mosquito nets. Oh, and a lightweight camera drone.
“These days, it’s hard to imagine life without it,” he told me when we spoke recently. “And things are so much better when you can fit everything in your hand baggage.”
The legendary archaeological excavations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries operated on an almost immeasurably bigger scale. When German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated the ancient city of Troy, now in northern Turkey, in the 1870s, he employed teams of up to 160 laborers working over three years. These digs were destructive, too. Schliemann himself resorted to using dynamite, and scholars later accused him of causing even more damage than the 12th century B.C. Greek invasion.
Where once archeologists excavating ancient ruins had little more than oral texts, haphazard plans, and aerial photographs to guide them, an archeological revolution has been under way over the last 15 years — and technology is almost entirely responsible. When a sprawling Mayan megalopolis was uncovered in northern Guatemala in February 2018, archeologists used a low-flying aircraft equipped with a lidar camera (light detection and ranging) that allowed researchers to see through dense jungle canopy. They located some 61,000 ancient structures hidden deep beneath the soil, then plotted them onto a virtual 3D environment. No digging necessary — and definitely no dynamite.
“The tech we’re using has really transformed our way of looking,” Spencer said.
On the ground, “remote sensing” technologies such as ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry can peer deep beneath the earth, building up…