New light on the past

New light on the past WHO would have thought of archaeologists and anthropologists using cutting-edge computer and laser technology in their disciplines? Now, the scribble pads beloved of anthropologists and archaeologists' calipers could well be given a decent burial for all time to come.

At the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, researchers are using laser beams to study shards, fossils and other archaeological artefacts. Laser beams scan the artefacts by bouncing off them at various angles and recording the information carried in the reflected waves. This data is packed with information regarding the shape of the objects and their various overt features (Scientific American, Vol No 6).

To provide more information about the object, scientists also use the familiar computer-aided tomography, a CATscan of the artefact: the object is X-rayed from various angles and the exposures are processed by a computer to produce a 3-dimensional image of the object. The information gathered by laser scanning and CATscan is then processed through computers and stored as data files on CD-ROMs. This does away with the need to possess the actual specimen or to handle a fragile artefact since all its characteristics are now stored as bits of data on the CD-ROM.

But what if some archaeologist wants to get the feel of a fossil? To satisfy such people, there is now a process called "laser sintering" whereby the artefact itself can be recreated. Laser sintering essentially involves the mirror imaging, or the reverse process, of scanning: a computer-aided laser marks the sample and etches it into a suitable powder. A laser is then used to heat-fuse this powder together and a replica is carved.

Although laser scanners, CATscanners and replication processes are exorbitantly expensive, and the methods are still in the experimental stage, researchers are excited by the tremendous promise the technology holds. Apart from aiding in creating virtually undamagable electronic archives of artefacts, it is certain to change the way research and teaching is done in these disciplines.

What is more, the coming years hold the possibility of a large archival library of archaeological and anthropological artefacts accessible on global computer networks like Internet. Anyone with Internet safe passage could just download the relevant file and either take a printout or view it. This is not as futuristically esoteric as it sounds since the NIH (National Institutes of Health) in the US has already inserted detailed images of the complete male human body on Internet.

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