Thursday, 19 February 2015

Traditional vs. digital excavation at the Qin Shi Huang tomb

The famous tomb of Qin Shi Huang (think of the terracotta army) is a site I find of particular interest when considering the application of digital remote sensing in archaeology. The limited amount that is known about the burial easily captivates the imagination – peripheral excavations and historical accounts suggest that the tomb consists of a massive buried structure filled with untold (or told but unconfirmed) marvels. It's thought that the burial chamber contains an intricate diorama of the Qin empire, complete with rivers and lakes of mercury, and that it is protected by booby-traps of various types. What is most remarkable about this site is that it has never been excavated (the tomb structure itself) and that it it likely to stay this way for a while yet. Remote sensing studies, on the other hand have been conducted at the site, yielding positive results that suggest a level of optimism for further accessing the mysteries of the tomb non-invasively (eg. Tan et al. 2006).

Remote sensing at the Qin tomb represents an example of the way methods of digital archaeology can grant us access to spaces and data that are (for various reasons) not accessible. It seems likely that as techniques of imaging and sensing improve, more will become known about this site without needing to excavate or disturb it in any significant way. In this sense, non-invasive digital techniques can have replaced inherently destructive excavation methods for the benefit of heritage preservation, creating a radical new digital archaeology.

Yet, this seems not to be entirely the case. A cursory Google search on the topic yields certain patterns of opinion on the topic. The general attitude of commentators seems to be that hesitance to excavate has been based on insecurity regarding the inadequacies of modern excavation and preservation techniques, as well as health related fears (mercury, booby-traps). It seems that digital methods are to be considered a tool for guiding excavation in some future time when someone has decided that the time has come to open the tomb. This attitude (though recent opinions are oddly hard to find) threatens to miss the opportunity for heritage preservation through digital archaeological means. The site seems well suited for remote sensing techniques to take the central role in the archaeological investigation of a significant site that, arguably, need never be excavated. Burials, after all, are the types of sites that have the potential to fulfill their intended purposes forever as long as they remain unmolested by archaeologists.   

Tan, K. Wan, Y., Zhou X., Song D., Duan, Q. 2006. “The application of remote sensing technology in the archaeological study of the Mausoleum of Emperor Qinshihuang.” International Journal of Remote Sensing. 27(16):3347–3363.


i-ing the past said...

Interesting... both the remote findings and the the assumption that cuz its there, it must be dug. I think that assumption is at least in part guided by the transitional nature of digital technologies, and as they get more "accurate" and immersive, that might help advance more of a preservation logic to such sites. of course, the desire to dig and see is a strong impulse in archaeology still, and that is a broader issues beyond digital "sensibilities", I think!

Jennifer Willoughby said...

I agree that this site presents a fascinating opportunity to really explore some of the possibilities of remote sensing and other digital archaeology techniques. Even if they are so far only using these techniques to guide potential future excavation (and avoid booby-traps!), they are at least creating a digital record. Hopefully the archaeologists will see the potential for a digital excavation, using these techniques, and leave the site undisturbed. That would make a good case for allowing some form of archaeological inquiry to be performed at sites of sensitive cultural heritage (such as tombs and burials), since it can be done non-invasively, and leave the original purpose of the site intact.
As long as they don't try to 3D print some terra-cotta warriors for tourist knickknacks!

Isabella Graham said...

This resource provides an interesting insight into the application of digital technologies as non-destructive methods of archaeological analysis. I think that a future obstacle that may be encountered when using this type of resource is the general acceptance in the archaeological community. As you get farther away from traditional archaeological methods, there seems to be a reluctance of accepting digital technologies as viable methods of investigation. Yet this site would provide an ideal location to try several of these new technologies while reifying the need for non-invasice, non-destructive methods in the field. In the future, the shift from trowels to tomography can represent a new paradigm in the way we conduct archaeological investigations.