Tom Levy's High-Tech Cyber-Archaeology Roadshow

By Tiffany Fox,, (858) 246-0353

San Diego, Calif., Feb. 12, 2013 — Anthropology Professor and Archaeologist Tom Levy is often compared to the fictional Indiana Jones — a khaki-clad adventurer braving hot desert winds (if not man-eating snakes) to unearth ancient mysteries. 

Tom Levy in the field, with camel
UCSD Anthropology Professor Tom Levy has taken his own signature research style on the road, generating worldwide interest in digital cyber-archaeology. 

But the truth is, Levy prefers wearing a kafiya and Levi’s while out in the field, and even his cyber-archaeology research for the University of California, San Diego bears its own signature style: Advanced digital tools and data-sharing workflows that are transforming the traditional world of "dirt" archaeology. This approach has become so internationally in-demand that Levy has found himself spending almost as much time hopping between sites as he has excavating them.

During the recent fall and winter months, Levy and his team of archaeologists and computer scientists from the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) have taken their high-tech roadshow from Jordan to Saudi Arabia and back again. They conducted field work for both UC San Diego and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in regions of the ancient Holy Land and in Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Jordan.

Gian Mario Maggio
 Aerial imaging of 3rd century AD cistern found this past fall quarter in a newly discovered Roman villa in the Faynan copper ore district where the UCSD team has worked since 1997.

Levy and his students also presented their research at the World Archaeology Congress and – on Jan. 25, back in the U.S. – Levy headlined a meeting on cyber-archaeology and world cultural heritage for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, an esteemed policy research center founded in 1780 that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. The meeting took place at Calit2, and Levy's talk is now available on-demand on YouTube and at the American Academy website.

In the last 10 days, Levy also led a workshop on underwater archaeology, and joined graduate students and faculty from the Calit2-based Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) for an Open Lab Night, showcasing work in cultural heritage engineering done by roughly 20 Ph.D. students funded by the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Levy's whirlwind season of research culminated yesterday with the publication of an article about his work in Jordan in Antiquity, a quarterly review of world archaeology. * 

“After three years of focusing quite a bit of our effort and energy on cyber-archaeology -- the marriage of computer science, engineering and archaeology -- it has really developed as my own main research endeavor, and it’s also becoming an important part of the Calit2 mission," says Levy. "But the thing to remember is that all this field work also ties into the doctoral dissertation projects of our graduate students who are part of our NSF IGERT Training, Research and Education in Engineering for Cultural Heritage Diagnostics project.”

Levy and CISA3 director Falko Kuester of the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering are co-PIs on the IGERT project, with Levy leading the cyber-archaeology effort. Eight IGERT-affiliated students from the departments of Anthropology and Computer Science joined Levy in the field this past fall quarter to carry out their own original field research.

Levy’s systematic approach to cyber-archaeology incorporates a suite of digital tools and data-sharing workflows to provide an objective methodology for understanding and preserving the past. Rather than rely, for example, on sketches of artifacts and dig sites (which are labor-intensive and prone to human error), Levy and his team use multispectral imaging and LiDAR laser-scanning to capture digital point clouds of massive amounts of data, which they then render using custom-designed software, and share via collaborative databases. “I think what our group does especially well is integrating the core areas of cyber-archaeology: data acquisition, curation, analyses and dissemination,” he notes.

Gian Mario Maggio
The helium balloon platform, designed by undergraduates from the UCSD National Geographic Engineers for Exploration program, was deployed along the Colonnaded Street in the center of Petra, Jordan's most famous UNESCO World Heritage site.

Another arrow in Levy’s digital quiver is the 3D CAVEcam -- two Lumix GF1 cameras carefully calibrated to take simultaneous right and left images. Levy was invited with Calit2 senior research scientist Thomas DeFanti  (co-creator of the CaveCAM and PI of a major UCSD-Calit2 scientific visualization project at KAUST)  to conduct high-definition stereo photography of ancient metallurgical sites in Hijaz, a region in northwest Saudi Arabia. This included a famous gold mine northeast of Mecca called Madh al-Dahab (Cradle of Gold) and an ancient copper production site only accessible by off-road vehicle.

Levy, who has a long-held academic interest in the role of metal in social evolution, then continued his research in the Faynan region of Jordan in late September. There he led a major expedition of about 30 undergraduate and graduate students in a continuing effort to understand the political structure of ancient mining operations in the area during a number of periods, beginning in the early Neolithic period (9000-6000 BC). The team also uncovered a well-preserved Roman villa at the site dating from the 3rd century AD, and conducted field work at a medieval Islamic metal factory.

The Neolithic dig was supervised by Anthropology graduate student Kathleen Bennallack and the Islamic excavation by IGERT student Ian Jones. Huge LiDAR point clouds were collected by IGERT student Ashley Richter at all the sites the team excavated.

Vid Petrovic, an IGERT student from Computer Science and Engineering, joined the team for three weeks to apply his new program for exploring and managing point-cloud data collected with LiDAR and other methods. David Vanoni, also from CSE, applied a new Augmented Reality (AR) program that enables researchers and visitors to use a SmartPhone or tablet computer to review large sets of cultural data from archaeological sites.

Every day the team was in the field, Anthropology graduate student Matt Howland flew the CISA3-developed helium balloon system developed for Jordan in 2009 by National Geographic UCSD Engineers for Exploration program. Howland also used new software to create beautiful 3D models of the excavation sites.

Back at the dig house — called Qasr [Castle] Faynan — Canadian graduate student Anna Shoemaker of the University College London 'floated' soil samples from the excavations each day to obtain ancient plant remains from the different sites to learn more about the local economy through the ages in Faynan. This involved the use of a "Froth Flotation Machine" developed by Levy and his team, which pumps water through soil samples to extract carbonized organic material (seeds, husks, charcoal, etc.) so that it can be collected, dried and examined under a microscope. 

Gian Mario Maggio
The UC San Diego Cyber-Archaeology team planning their expedition at KAUST in Saudi Arabia in September (left to right): Tom Levy, Neil Smith, Falko Kuester, Adel Mahmood Saad (KAUST), and Abdulrahman Khoja (local guide).

Meanwhile, IGERT graduate student Aaron Gidding field-tested a new relational database the team calls ArchaeoSTOR, which links all the different kinds of instrumentation data collected in the field. Levy’s Levantine Archaeology Lab is part of a UCSD Research Cyber-Infrastructure pilot project, and the ArchaeoSTOR data are now being coupled with an on-line publication project carried out with the UCSD Library and San Diego Supercomputer Center.

Adds Levy: “ArchaeoSTOR pulls together many different kinds of digital data collected in the field and lab, such as LiDAR data, instrument data such as those taken from portable x-ray florescence instruments, data from GPS total stations and so on. It enables the researchers to utilize all these different kinds of data in different data formats together, so it’s a great organizational tool that also has a spatial component, since we use a non-proprietary GIS program to be able to create maps of where all these data are.”

As the Jordan expedition was being carried out, Levy also managed to fit in a trip to Petra, where he and his team deployed the helium balloon platform to create high-definition, geo-referenced imagery of the Temple of Winged Lions. The American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) — the umbrella organization for North American researchers doing work in Jordan — had recruited Levy and his team to conduct the research this past November as part of a $600,000 U.S. Ambassadors conservation project. The monumental temple pobably served initially as a center of worship for the main Nabataen goddess (al-Lat/al-Uzza) and then was later included in the worship of the Hellenized goddess, Isis. Its size makes it extremely rare for the period, making its preservation of the utmost importance. 

“We effectively generated a great data set for all researchers from multiple nations that do work there, who can now go to ACOR and get this imagery for free,” explains Levy. “But this was also a kind of proof-of-concept for us to be able to conduct these kinds of small-scale ‘boutique' cyber-archaeology projects, where we collect masses of data in a short amount of time. I like to call it ‘rescue archaeology.’”

Gian Mario Maggio
UCSD IGERT TEECH graduate student Ashley Richter with Tom Levy, while carrying out a LiDAR laser scan in the Byzantine Church at Petra.

Last month, Levy took the show on the road back to Jordan, home of the 2012 World Archaeology Congress (WAC). Held every four years, the WAC features more than 800 researchers from about 70 different countries, many of whom gained exposure to Levy’s research by way of two sessions on the analysis of big data gathered from archaeological research in Jordan. The majority of the papers were presented by Levy’s UCSD team, as well as by researchers from Australia’s La Trobe University, the University of Wales and the Hashemite University of Jordan.

On Jan. 25, Levy was the featured speaker at a meeting of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, held at Calit2. UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla provided introductory remarks, and Prof. Charles Stanish of the UCLA Department of Anthropology introduced Levy, whose presentation focused on “Cyber-archaeology and World Cultural Heritage: Insights from the Holy Land.” The meeting was organized by American Academy Fellow and Professor Emeritus Gordon Gill of the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

“The United States government looks to the American Academy for advice on different kinds of issues — everything from defense strategy to technology, culture, and the arts,” says Levy, who became a Fellow in 2008. “For me, it was important to present our research about cyber-archaeology, because I think it offers the way forward for our country to maintain excellence in the humanities and social sciences. Presenting before the American Academy was a big deal for us.”

He notes that the organization has become increasingly interested in cultural heritage research, and the group asked Levy and his students to present a series of 11 demonstrations, ranging from Howland’s work with the helium balloon to Giddings’ efforts to create ArchaeoSTOR.

Levy acknowledges that his research seems to be gaining momentum as archaeologists and cultural historians around the world begin to see the value in an integrated approach to data acquisition, data curation, analyses and semination:

“We are the leaders in creating such an integrated cyberinfrastructure,” says Levy, “and I think this is really the way of the future for cultural heritage research. But this is only coming together now and it requires a lot of effort to maintain it. The NSF IGERT grant enabled us to build this cyber-archaeology platform, but there’s a lot more to do to maintain our excellence. If we want to continue we have to strengthen CISA3 and Calit2’s investment in what we do.”

* The 2012 Petra Cyber-Archaeology Cultural Conservation Expedition: Temple of the Winged Lions and Environs, Jordan, by Thomas E. Levy, Christopher A. Tuttle, Matthew L. Vincent, Matthew Howland, Ashley M. Richter, Vid Petrovic and David Vanoni. Antiquity, 2013. 

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox,, (858) 246-0353