Modern Technology For Historical Discovery
June 24, 2014

Modern Technology For Historical Discovery

My recent blog about how an until now unknown Picasso painting was discovered beneath his famous “The Blue Room” on the same canvas, using cutting edge technology to provide the detail, got me thinking about how wonderful it is that modern tech can help us to learn more about history. It also dismisses and normalizes a few loveable mysteries and myths, but that in itself is still fascinating. I thought I would look at a few examples.

I recently read on National Geographic that a “lost New England” from the Colonial Era is being discovered using high-tech scanners, called light detection and ranging (LiDAR). The airborne technology, which “…bounces laser light pulses off the ground to generate precise pictures of surface features” is helping historians not only to piece together what lost communities in that part of the US may have looked like before those in the homesteads abandoned them and headed West, leaving them to become covered by forest, but also others: in the Stone Henge area of England, Maya communities, and renaissance palaces.

Utilizing space in archeology, or “space archeology,” as it is slightly misleadingly known, is changing the game beyond recognition. Mashable reported on how Sarah Parcak, Director of the Laboratory for Global Observation¬†at the University of Alabama, could stay in that great state and discover the ancient Egyptian capital of Tanis, using satellites to scan vast areas of land for it, before proceeding on to traditional archeological digs once the right location is known.

Technology can be a spoilsport, though. A lot of fans said that the fourth Indiana Jones movie, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, was too stupid to be believable, and technology has proved them right. I must say, as an aside, that I don’t think the fourth movie is alone in its far-fetchedness. Okay, he survives a nuclear blast by getting inside a fridge, and that is before we even get to the main premise of the skulls, but it’s not like Jones fans have never seen this kind of implausibility before. For example, when he met a 700-year-old knight who helped him to use the actual Holy Grail to save his father’s life with a dribble of water, or opened the Ark of the Covenant. But I suppose a lot of what Indy has done before has been related to religion, which, as we all know, is highly contentious in real life when it comes to the subject of its believability.

The legend of crystal skulls, however, has not been drilled into societies the world over since school age, and is more open to easy scoffing. But what do we know about the truth of them? Most people will not be surprised to learn that they are not, sadly, what the movie claims they are: paranormal tools of alien archeologists who wished to study our world, or what previous explanations hoped for; that they are ancient, pre-Colombian Mesoamerican — from the time before Europeans came and influenced the Americas. Technology able to see fine detail eventually told us what materials the skulls were made from and the kind of tools were used by observing scratch marks invisible to the naked eye. The conclusion was that they are 19th century European, created to satisfy (and make money from) the huge interest in archeological artifacts at that time.

A sad end to an interesting story, and, of course, Indy peering over satellite images is not quite as exciting as his leather-jacketed adventures, but as he himself told us, “archeology is the search for fact, not truth.”

Image Credit: Lucasfilm

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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