For many years I have been fascinated by history and archaeology and over the years I have spent many hours looking around stately homes, reading lots of books and magazines on the subject and occasionally being lucky enough to have a look at recent archaeological excavations.
My interest in archaeology stemmed from a cousin who, even whilst being employed in a very powerful job with a global organisation, signed up to gain a degree in the subject in her spare time. I very much looked up to this cousin when I was a child and so I wanted to get to know more about the stuff that they liked to be involved in.
I live near the site of one of the well known Roman roads through England and whilst construction was going on to widen the present day dual carriageway which lies along the same route, archaeologists discovered the remains of a Roman fort just half a mile from my house. I was absolutely fascinated by the very notion, despite the fact that the excavation was a highly uninspiring hole along the side of a farmer’s field, where my sisters and I had picked our own strawberries a year or two before.
Once the excavation had been completed, the major finds recorded and the dig documented, my cousin was given permission to take me onto the site and allowed me to have a look about and see what I could find. It was a fantastic experience as a child to be able to look at the stratigraphy of the excavation and to be able to dig bits and pieces out of the many layers of occupation on the site. But back then, there wasn’t really any interest in presenting such excavations to the public at large and so details describing the site were written in academic terms and were utterly inappropriate for a child, so I never actually got any idea of what the fort might have looked like, or what it could have been like to live there.
I thought of this recently when viewing an episode of Time Team on TV. I’m totally aware of how developments in archaeological processes and a general in the past have made it much easier to present archaeology to the public and it’s great to think that sciences like geophysics aren’t just the domain of individuals who have been to university. But this specific episode of the programme grabbed my attention more than usual.
The site being looked at was situated on particularly difficult terrain and a lot of the work was being completed in trenches which were more like vertical than horizontal. When trying to sum up the site and why the emphasis had shifted from one place to another over the years, the archaeologists made use of a piece of equipment which could assess the complete site three dimensionally using the beam from a Laser eye.
We are all aware that lasers are used in many areas of our lives, from barcode scanners, to DVD players, Laser eye surgery and laser light shows at concerts, but this technology is incredible. It can be used to measure distances to or from any target position by sending out pulses from a Laser eye in the equipment. These can be aimed at very specific points (as tiny as a pinhead if necessary) and the location of every point is fed back into a computer which gathers together all of the data. The operator can then utilise software to create a three dimensional image of the area which has been surveyed and can play with that image to view the location from any angle necessary.
This time, the data was able to prove that the castle which was being excavated had slowly become less used due to the development of better fire power. Having firearms with a greater range meant that attackers on a nearby area of higher ground would have been able to threaten the castle. And an accurate three dimensional picture of the site was able to demonstrate exactly that.
How brilliant it would have been if equipment like this had been invented when I was at school. I could have understood what the building I had visited would have looked like, and how it was located in the settlement and the surrounding area. The application is not exclusively used in archaeology either – there are a lot of other uses for it too.
So the humble laser can be utilised for many things that we are starting to rely on, such as shop scanners, CD players and Laser eye surgery, but from my own perspective, I’m hopeful that I’ll see it used a lot more in archaeology so that hopefully it can give us a substantially better picture of living in the past.