St. Olaf College | News

Students use new technology to document big archaeological find

St. Olaf students Kelly Montoya ’15 (left) and Nicole Wagner ’15 use reflectance transformance imaging technology to document a life-sized marble head of the goddess Aphrodite that their group unearthed in Turkey.

A group of St. Olaf College students working on an archaeological dig in Turkey became some of the first researchers in the world to use a new technology that could change how scholars study artifacts.

And one of the first artifacts they documented using the technology was a life-sized marble head of the goddess Aphrodite that their group helped unearth. The find, which has attracted attention from national media outlets like NBC News, is important because it sheds new light on the extent of the Roman Empire’s wide cultural influence, which scholars previously argued didn’t reach as far as southern Turkey.

The new technology, called reflectance transformance imaging (RTI), takes about 70 photos of an artifact from an array of angles and artificially inserts various lighting on the object. In a sense, it takes the normal 2-D images and creates a composite 3-D image.

Associate Professor of History Tim Howe holds the life-sized marble head of Aphrodite that a group of St. Olaf students helped unearth in Turkey. The statue has shed new light on the reach of the Roman Empire’s cultural influence and has attracted national media attention.

Associate Professor of History Tim Howe led the monthlong program to southern Turkey, where 10 students participated in a dig as part of his Archaeological Methods course and another four students used RTI to document artifacts as part of a project through the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.

RTI is the future of archaeology, says Howe, noting that the St. Olaf team is the first to use the technology on an active excavation site. Because RTI reveals writing, dates, and images on objects that aren’t visible to the human eye, looking at an object through the technology can be even better than handling it in person — a feature that the St. Olaf team learned firsthand.

“We were able to determine the date of a fallen milestone by demonstrating that there were no additional lines of text above the mile numbers and confirm that it was established during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, rather than his son Commodus as previously assumed,” explains Howe.

His next goal is to create a digital museum of artifacts using RTI. The site would have the raw 3-D images, data collected for each object, and a GPS link so people will know where and how it was found. Researchers around the world would have the ability to look at these objects without ever traveling to Turkey.

“RTI is really poised to become the new way of archaeology,” Howe adds.

St. Olaf students (from left) Claire Yancey ’14, Elizabeth Bews ’15, and Morgan Wychor ’15 uncover a mosaic at an archaeological dig in Antiochia ad Cragum, Turkey.

Tackling new technology
Howe first learned about RTI at a conference. St. Olaf purchased the relatively low-cost technology thanks to a digital humanities grant from the Mellon Foundation, as well as support from the Dean’s Academic Innovation Fund, the CURI program, and the college’s Office of Information Technology.

Jason Menard, an instructional technologist with the IT Office who holds a doctorate in Roman archaeology and geographic information systems from the University of Minnesota, worked closely with the members of Howe’s team and provided field support that made their work possible.

Students taking part in this summer’s program in Antiochia ad Cragum, Turkey, worked to uncover an ancient marketplace and a massive bath complex, both of which included mosaics.

They documented many of their finds — which included an arrowhead from the first century B.C. and a number of coins in addition to the Aphrodite statue — using RTI.

Because they were the first group to use RTI on an active archeological dig, there were few references or manuals to refer to when a problem arose.

“If we encountered a problem, often there was no place we could turn to for a ‘correct’ answer; rather, we had to creatively come up with solutions and critically think about the process and technology we were using,” says Nicole Wagner ‘15.

Members of the team were fascinated by the level of detail from the RTI images, which allowed them to see inscriptions no one had seen for thousands of years.

“We would take a completed RTI image to one of the professors and they would discover something new about the object they had studied for years,” says Seth Ellingson ‘15. “That was the greatest reward.”