Advanced technology uncovers ancient Maya and Egyptian civilizations

From 3D measurements and virtual technology to artificial intelligence (AI) and DNA analysis, rapidly developing technologies are advancing research into ancient relics and human activities.

These technologies are used not only for research-related discoveries, but also for the preservation, display and restoration of cultural property. We are at the forefront of using the latest technology for research into the ancient world.

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The golden mask of the famous King Tutankhamun of Egypt is displayed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Restoration of the ‘Second Solar Boat’

2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s royal tomb. The Grand Egyptian Museum, which aims to open in Egypt in the second half of 2022, will house artifacts such as the relics of Tutankhamun, and Japanese researchers have cooperated in the preservation and restoration of these valuable cultural assets.

University of Tokyo Associate Professor Takeshi Oishi (Spatiotemporal Media Engineering) and others collaborated with the Egyptian researchers to measure the 3D artifacts. By analyzing the collected data, they discovered that a canopy and a two-wheeled cart, which had been displayed separately, were in fact a set.

There had previously been a theory that the cart had a canopy, but it was difficult to confirm as there was a risk of damage when trying to combine the real artifacts. Using 3D data and virtually fitting the two components showed that they matched perfectly.

The new museum is considering a method of display that would allow visitors to view images of the restored canopy car on their smartphones.

The “Second Solar Boat,” found near King Khufu’s pyramid, is also central to Dr. Oishi’s restoration efforts. The huge wooden vessel was built around 4,500 years ago, but parts have crumbled and deteriorated over time. Dr. Oishi measured parts that warped due to scratches or shrinkage and simulated the original structure using 3D data. In the future, he plans to restore the boat by connecting the excavated parts.

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Egyptian women wait for a bus at a train station near the historic site of the Giza pyramids in Cairo, Egypt, January 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Baryon temple in Angkor

For more than 20 years, Dr. Oishi has been working on 3D measurement and analysis of various archaeological sites and cultural properties, such as the Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple in Nara and the Bayon Temple of Angkor in Cambodia.

At Temple Baryon, much of the carved statue’s face remains. Art history experts have determined which spirits are depicted by referring to the shape of their jaws and eyes, but Dr. Oishi and others have developed a method to classify them using objective data. and measured.

Also, the temple may collapse due to weather. Using 3D data and a 3D printer, a model of the temple was created and a wind tunnel experiment was conducted to determine what type of damage would occur based on wind direction and speed.

The temple has been measured almost every year for over ten years, and changes over time have been recorded. Analysis of the aging process and the effects of restoration efforts has contributed to the preservation of the remains.

Going forward, continued research into robots that can perform measurements will be important so that a lot of consistent quality data can be collected, according to Dr Oishi.

Spatial archeology and Maya civilization

Professor Takeshi Inomata (Mayan Archaeology) from the University of Arizona made an important discovery while taking 3D measurements from the sky. By irradiating a laser beam from a plane and determining differences in ground surface height from differences in reflection times, he discovered in southern Mexico the “Aguada Fénix” (Phoenix Reservoir), the largest and oldest large-scale structure in the Maya civilization.

The remains are 1,400 meters long, 400 meters wide and 10 to 15 meters high and form a rectangular open area. It seems to be a place where many people gathered to perform ceremonies. The ruins are so large that they look like natural terrain from the ground.

The method of finding archaeological sites using observational data collected from the sky, such as aerial photographs and images taken by satellites, is sometimes called space archaeology. However, in the area where the Maya lived, there are many tropical rainforests and thick vegetation blocked the line of sight.

Laser and data processing technologies have developed and been used in this region since around 2015.

Since it takes time to walk on the surface of the earth to study and make a map, only a limited area can be studied. “I could only see about 1 square kilometer at most, and I couldn’t capture the whole image of the [ancient] society,” Dr. Inomata said.

The measurement from the sky makes it possible to study a large surface at the same time. Compared to creating a map by walking through the jungle, struggling 100 yards at a time while watching for poisonous snakes, Dr. Inomata calls aerial measurement “another world”.

Around Aguada Fénix, more than 30,000 structures have been found by analyzing data from around 80,000 square kilometers. There is a limit to what humans can verify large amounts of data. The development of methods using artificial intelligence to classify structures is also continuing.

The Aguada Fénix is ​​said to have been built between 1100 and 700 BC. This was before the establishment of cities and dynasties.

The idea that such large-scale structures cannot be created without the existence of hierarchical organizations is deeply rooted. But the discovery of this site indicates that ancient peoples may have voluntarily gathered to do the work. Dr Inomata says: “This kind of understanding gives us important implications for human capabilities.

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This undated photo provided by Ludovic Slimak shows Neronian nanodots found near Montélimar, southern France, where evidence suggests occupation of the area alternated between Neanderthals and modern humans. (Ludovic Slimak via AP)

The progress of humanity

Unlike archaeology, which primarily deals with excavated remains, biological anthropology focuses on humans themselves, examining human bones.

Sex and age can be inferred from the shape and size of bones and teeth, and remaining deformities in the bones can be studied. There are also scans using computed tomography (CT) scans.

In addition to these methods, DNA analysis has recently developed as a powerful tool in anthropology.

For example, even if the size of the bones suggests that a person had a small physique, it cannot be known whether they had a small build due to genetics or nutritional or environmental effects. Examination of genetic material can reveal the reason.

It was discovered that DNA remained in old human bones in the late 1980s, and it became possible to analyze it. However, in the early stages, DNA from mitochondria, an organelle of the cell, was analyzed, and only genetic information from the mother’s side was known.

It has been possible to analyze nuclear DNA since around 2010, with the advent of the “next generation sequencer”, a device capable of reading a large amount of DNA sequences at high speed. This methodology makes it possible to examine genetic information inherited from both parents, and applications using the device have rapidly progressed.

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The skeleton of a young Neanderthal man at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News.

The first major achievement of this method is the discovery that extinct Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of modern humans, and that some of their genes are still inherited.

Genetic information directly tracks the origins of a modern human population and where they have been, how ancient peoples crossed the lands and spread around the world, and the accompanying spread of civilization and language .

Kenichi Shinoda, director of the National Museum of Nature and Science (Molecular Anthropology), points out that “there will be more collaborative research between anthropology and archeology.”

Indeed, DNA found in surrounding bones can help determine why a certain artifact was found there, indicating whether the object itself was simply brought from another location or whether the people who created it also moved.

If the genetic relationships of people found in the ruins are studied and the DNA of genetically distant people is found mixed, it can be inferred that there were interactions with different groups.

Information about a person’s hair characteristics and hair and eye color can also be obtained from DNA analysis. Combined with information such as physique, which can be found from the shape of the bone, the appearance of an ancient person can be restored more realistically.

DNA from pathogens such as bacteria and viruses can also be found in human bones. There are studies that track how infectious diseases, such as plague and tuberculosis, once spread and mutated.

However, Dr. Inomata cautions that attention is only focused on advanced technology and states that “Field investigation and excavation should not be neglected. Thorough research is important.

Research should elucidate the origins and stages of mankind by combining traditional and technologically advanced methods.

(Read the Sankei Shimbun report in Japanese on this link.)

Author: Maki Matsuda

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