A living discipline to explore the past: specific methods and leading-edge techniques in archaeology (December 23, 2016)


Archaeology, based on the study of the past, is nonetheless a discipline at the heart of innovation, thanks to the constant introduction of new technologies.

Constant introduction of new tools

The second half of the 20ᵗʰ century saw great progress in archaeological research, such as the development of carbon-14 dating in the 1960s, which no doubt remains the most emblematic invention. Innovation then continued, constantly enriching the methodological palette available to researchers.

From the 1960s onwards, the influence of the English-speaking world contributed to the development of an epistemological movement, “New Archaeology”, which led to considerable renewal of methods. Archaeometry, a method of physical and chemical study applied to archaeology and specifically used in dating, and its many branches, developed in this vein.

While these methods remain an important basis for archaeological research today, innovation has continued and constant diversification has offered new opportunities to resolve a number of historical enigmas. Archaeology has not escaped the digital revolution which has multiplied potential for analysis. Progress includes photogrammetry, which is used to produce 3D reconstructions of archaeological objects, remains and sites that are sometimes difficult to visualize; LiDaR (laser scanning), to see through the jungle; and mapping tools for a spatial approach to excavations.

Multidisciplinary research and new technology: drivers of 21ˢᵗ century archaeology

Archaeology today is based essentially on a multidisciplinary approach that provides a comprehensive understanding of humanity and ancient societies. It stands at the crossroads between the humanities (anthropology, history, art history, epigraphy, etc.) and the exact sciences. Indeed, the contribution of life sciences (archaeozoology, archaeobotany, etc.) and technological sciences is combined with cultural approaches, allowing researchers to reconstruct the environments in which ancient societies lived. The latest advances in digital technology can be used, for example, to develop new representations of territories.

This variety of disciplines and methodologies can be seen within each mission. The team of the “Eden” programme thus draws on complementarity between aerial photography and LiDaR to locate all its sites, on the one hand, and more conventional techniques of geological sampling in the field on the other, to understand the function and organization of the many archaeological complexes of the Upano basin in Amazonia. The analysis and interpretation of the data are based on a combination of ethnological, anthropological, ceramics and archaeobotanical analysis, and even volcanology.

The scientific community thus plays a very active part in the development of this methodological complementarity. The focus on innovation continues constantly thanks to the intense work of research laboratories and field teams. The IPANEMA laboratory of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) is an example of that synergy. It recently helped understand the production method of the oldest amulet in the world, which was found in Pakistan . France excels particularly in certain specialities that are therefore genuine fields of expertise, such as underwater archaeology and preventive archaeology (which seeks to preserve sites threatened by building work).

On the same topic:

Updated: december 2016

Useful links