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Lasers, Computers Help Reconstruct Ancient Greek Art

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Thirty-six centuries after a volcano buried civilization on Santorini, computers, scanners, and laser measuring devices are helping archaeologists reconstruct the shattered artifacts of the Mediterranean island’s ancient way of life.

Manual reconstruction of Santorini’s wall paintings started forty years ago. At the current rate of progress it would take at least another century to complete the task. The “Virtual Archaeologist” could accelerate this dramatically.

The new technology has the potential to change the way people do archaeology, says David Dobkin, dean of the  faculty and computer science professor at Princeton University, which developed the system with the archaeologists in Greece. Dobkin presented the system at a conference in Los Angeles today.

The Princeton system uses inexpensive off-the-shelf hardware and is designed to be used by archaeologists without the help of computer programmers, according to a statement by the university. 

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“Reconstructing an excavated fresco, mosaic or similar archaeological object is like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle, only far more difficult,” the statement said. “The original object often has broken into thousands of tiny pieces — many of which lack any distinctive color, pattern or texture and possess edges that have eroded over the centuries.”

The system is still being perfected, but it has already tested successfully, confirming fragment matches made by humans and finding others that researchers had not seen.

The Princeton researchers dubbed the system “Griphos,” which is Greek for puzzle or riddle. It sorts fragments according to edge surfaces to see which ones fit together.

The system is one more example of how technology is changing archaeology and other disciplines. New tools and greater knowledge consistently lead to new discoveries and perhaps even change what we think we know about our past.

One consequence of this has been discoveries of new species of dinosaurs and other animals in museum collections gathered decades ago, for example.

As technology like the Princeton Griphos improves our ability to reconstruct the past, it is a useful reminder that we need to preserve our archaeological heritage, in the museums and especially what’s still in the ground.

We need to protect as much as we can for future generations with perhaps even more powerful tools and processes than we have to advance what we know of the distant past.

The image at the top of the entry is one of the reassembled wall mosaics from the ancient Greek civilization Thera (Santorini). The lower image is a Princeton technical researcher examining fresco fragments in Santorini. Both images courtesy Princeton Graphics Group.

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