Hi-tech discoveries: archaeology transformed

Physics is breaking new ground in the field of archaeology and human evolution.

So much so that in just a few years the gains in archaeology now equal the gains made from the past 100 years of using traditional methods, explains nuclear physicist and University of Wollongong visiting Professor Claudio Tuniz.

Dr Tuniz, who began his career in the United States using physics to analyse moon rocks and meteorites, has spent almost two decades examining how advanced scientific technology in nuclear physics and X-rays can tell us more about palaeoanthropology and human evolution.

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In a lecture last month at the Lucas Heights facility ANSTO, where he worked for 15 years, Tuniz described how the development of transportable instruments based on X-ray techniques and radiography can provide analysis of archaeological and cultural heritage materials in museums and in the field, with little or no disturbance to artefacts.

For example, he plans to take new X-ray instruments to outback Australia later this year where he will date and analyse Aboriginal rock art without having to take a sample of the work.

Other developments in laser technology are being used around the world to unearth the location of previously unknown historical sites.

The International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy, of which Tuniz is co-ordinator, discovered one of the oldest known Roman military forts in Europe last year - from the air.

In a helicopter hovering over an area of north-east Italy, scientists bounced laser beams off the land. Using airborne LiDAR (light, detection and ranging) sensing and special software, the image from the laser then stripped all buildings and vegetation to produce a clear picture of the land and the treasures lying underneath the subsoil.

Then, using typological analyses with 3D X-ray, the Roman fort was dated to around 200 years BC.

"It was a surprise discovery - before that the camp was almost unknown. It was found completely by chance," says Tuniz. "You couldn't see the structure before because it was covered with trees, but once they were cleared electronically, you could see, from a distance, the walls of the fort perfectly."

Welcome to the new age of archaeology.

Where archaeologists would once hack a swathe through forests and use tools to dig and scrape the ground, the LiDAR excavates a site using digital imaging techniques.

But archaeologists won't be hanging up their traditional tools anytime soon - the technology is expensive. Far too costly to be paid for by any archaeological grant. So far only a few teams around the world have been able to access LiDAR for archaeological purposes.

"We are just beginning with this new technique," says Tuniz. "What we need to do is try and convince those using it for environmental purposes, such as the study of earthquakes, to share the data with us and from that we can extract further information."

The results of the Italy flyover are to be officially published in the Journal of Archaeological Science next month. What scientists found was an outline of a rectangular area which contained a second, inner wall.

Initial investigations indicate that the fort was built to defend against the Barbarians. It may have been used as a starting point from which the Roman military set off to conquer the eastern world.

The camp is 120 years older than a Roman military camp unearthed in Germany last year by archaeologists from the University of Mainz, a discovery which shed new light on the Roman conquest of Gaul.

While more in-depth investigation is needed to confirm speculation about the Italian fort, it too may be of historical importance in that it could be linked to the military camp in an episode of the third Istrian war described by early historian Titus Livius in his monumental accounts of ancient Rome.

According to Livius, the Roman fleet headed for the first port along the Istrian coast. The two legions camped further inland, about seven kilometres from their ships. The geographical location of the fort - Mount Grociana - is seven kilometres from the old port of Stramare, one of the first landing sites in the Istrian region. Archaeologists believe the ancient fort coincides precisely with the camp described by Livius.

As a bone reader, Tuniz's work involves using physics to study ancient human remains, including their chemistry and DNA. He says advances in scientific methods are the "prime approach to understanding the secrets of human origins".

He is currently working in collaboration with the University of NSW to investigate the life of Neanderthals.

In September Tuniz made headlines worldwide when he discovered that Stone Age man had used dentistry to soothe a toothache.

Using technology at ANSTO, he examined an ancient human jawbone with six teeth. The jaw and teeth were found in 1911 embedded in a rock inside a cave in present day Slovenia. Tuniz found that a wax filling, made of beeswax, had been used on a vertical crack in the tooth 6500 years ago - the oldest dental procedure on record.

The human remains had been kept in the Museum of Natural History in Trieste in Italy and while a study had been conducted in the 1930s, not much information was gained from the specimen because the technology wasn't available.

Tuniz says the filling was most likely put in place to reduce pain from the broken tooth. The vertically cracked tooth also had an area of worn enamel most likely caused from using the teeth as a tool, possibly for weaving, an activity usually carried out by Neolithic females.

"We made a 3D image of the full jaw," says Tuniz. "The resolution is a thousand times better than a CT scan you get in hospitals. When you have that type of resolution you can see details no one has seen before. So that's when we discovered that one of the canines had a fracture and that it held some strange substance. At the time we laughed at the idea that Stone Age man had been curing a toothache, but then we said 'let's test that hypothesis'."

To determine the date of the wax, a very small sample was sent to ANSTO for independent dating.

"When I saw the final number of 6500 I jumped up and down, it was that good," says Tuniz.

What the discovery of the wax filling shows - Tuniz says - is that it's important for scientists to revisit all the ancient artefacts in museums because new methodologies could reveal new information.

Later this year, Tuniz will travel to Western Australia where, in combination with ANSTO and the indigenous community, he will date rock art in the field.

"We are planning to use portable X-ray instruments which we will bring from Italy," he says. "Recent advances mean we won't have to take samples of the art. Rock art is one of the most peculiar aspect of Australian archaeology.

"Prehistoric cultural heritage is of great significance to Australian indigenous people and it is important for their cultural identity."

He is also planning to take the portable X-ray machines to African museums to examine artefacts relevant to human evolution.

Tuniz been appointed as a visiting professor at the University of Wollongong until 2016. 

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