Friday, April 28, 2006

Nanotech Archaeology Ants

Anyone who has ever shifted and sieved a lot of dirt on an archaeological dig has mused to themselves, "There's got to be a better way of doing this". The conventional solution has been to employ other people, or in the absence of such, students, to do the grunt work. But I have another suggestion.

The aim of an archaeological excavation is to abstract information about structures under ground and collect a highly selective sample of stuff from the trench. In other words: to draw interesting features, pinpoint and collect interesting finds and separate them from the spoil dirt.

A good way to do this would be with nanotech robot ants. With the size and strength of live ants, but with far more processing power, a hi-res positioning system and a wireless communications link. Instead of marking a rectangle on the ground and putting people with trowels and folding rules in it, one would mark the rectangle with positioning beacons and let a few million nano ants loose in it.

Each ant would be programmed to take a grain of material from the dig, classify it, transmit its composition and 3D location to the documentation computer, receive its opinion about it, move it to a spoil dump or a finds officer, and then repeat. Objects too large for a single ant to shift, such as a pebble or a brooch, would prompt a group of nano ants to congregate for the task.

As the ants emptied the trench, grain by grain, an extremely detailed model of the site's contents would form in the documentation computer. This model could then be sectioned every which way by human archaeologists according to their whims and interests. This methodology would generate huge datasets and a field documentation so hi-res that it would effectively be equivalent to the untouched site to any archaeologist working on a human scale of things.

The nano ants would also be great for reassembling broken pottery and glass or re-fit knapped stone. Just let them scramble over a big pile of stuff and identify surfaces that fit each other.

This technology isn't here yet, but there are people working on it. It'll take a lot of computer smarts and engineering wizardry. But all of that is just a matter of multiplying what we already have today. It's not a qualitative leap from today's PC, total station and Mars rover. We just need to make far smaller rovers, and in the millions.

When will we have the necessary tech? I'd say it's a matter of decades. And as usual, it won't be developed for archaeology. Probably NASA will fund the development for Mars and then archaeologists will co-opt the stuff once it gets cheap enough.

That's what we do: borrow methodologies. Mats P. Malmer has said that typology is the nearest we get to an original archaeological method, but that we've actually nicked that too – from the numismatists. And Mats should know, being married to a professor of numismatics.

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Blogger Alun said...

But what if they rebel?
We'll need a cyborg anteater too.

28 April, 2006 18:36  
Blogger Martin said...

Yes, being excavated to death by robot ants is probably not a very nice way to go.

28 April, 2006 18:58  
Anonymous maike (Juniper) said...

what about using them for gardening...
might be slow but - no more dirt under ones fingernails after digging through the topsoil... no more descisions like "lying in the sun or gardening"... and for those who love getting their hands dirty... just let the ants clean the gardenshed...

02 May, 2006 20:48  
Blogger Martin said...

And clean the dishes! And brush our teeth! And shave me!

02 May, 2006 21:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could they ever tell the difference between dirt and something crumbly? Would they destroy things that had partly crumbled away by just seeing the crumbs and not the thing as a whole?

10 May, 2006 17:05  
Blogger Martin said...

My idea is that the ants would be able to tell us a) what each crumble was made of, and b) exactly where it was found. So it would be easy to have the ants collect every smidgeon of, say, green glass, in one place and reassemble the bits later.

11 May, 2006 08:48  

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