Notes from a Time Sifter


LiDAR, GPR, Magnetometers and More will Help Solve Archaeological Mysteries

Every archaeological excavation uncovers things that we do not know.  Sites are not always easy to find, and some, when discovered, are often difficult to understand.  Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist for National Geographic, believes that because of new methods and technology, archaeologists will find new sites and solve many unknowns during the twenty-first century. The October, 2015 issue lists seven of these.

(1) Using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), Hiebert believes that we will find unknown cities and civilizations of Central and South America that are now covered with dense jungle. LiDAR “sees” under the overgrowth to reveal buildings and foundations. Some remains have already been discovered with LiDAR (see MIT Technology Review, 6/26/15) that amazed archaeologists, and there are probably many more to be found. In addition, GPR (ground penetrating radar) allows archaeologists to “look” underground, no digging required.  GPR can survey very large areas for small features like tombs.

(2) Hiebert speculates thatthe “lost” tombs of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan could be found using GPR.

(3) The tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di surrounded by terracotta soldiers is known, but the artifacts are fragile so there is a reluctance to allow the opening of the tomb.  GPR and magnetometers (instruments for detecting the presence of ferrous or magnetic materials) can survey the interior of the tomb, and robotic devices can actually enter the tomb without harming the artifacts.

(4) We cannot yet decipher  the Minoan writing system called Linear A , (Sir Arthur Evans) so we do not know what language they were speaking.  If we knew, we could tell where they came from and what they were thinking. “Big Data,” a computer program invented by Jeff Jonas (National Geographic, 5/6/14), and IBM’s Watson ( can find connections that might allow us to finally read Linear A.  That would match the knowledge we have from Egyptian hieroglyphics deciphered by Jean Champollion, and the cuneiform of Mesopotamia that Henry Rawlinson figured out how to read.

(5) These computer analysis programs that can synthesize geographical and archaeological data could also help in understanding the purpose of the Nazca lines in Peru  (

(6) Hiebert thinks that even global warming will help uncover unknown data.  The ice sheets and glaciers are melting, exposing things that have been frozen for thousands of years.  A forty-thousand year old Ice Age mammoth was found in a receding glacier in Siberia in 2007 (National Geographic, May 2009).

(7) New Viking sites are being revealed along the Canadian coasts where temperatures have risen.  Hiebert believes more will be exposed and that these could change the history of the “discovery” of America.

Fredrik Hiebert sees an exciting future for twenty-first century archaeologists. The October, 2015 issue of the National Geographic magazine presents the story with its usual fantastic pictures.  The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888.  The first wildlife pictures were published in their magazine in 1906, and in 1912, they gave an archaeology grant to Hiram Bingham to excavate Machu Picchu.  They have continued to support scientific adventures, including archaeology, ever since. We hope they continue forever.

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