Q&A with “Cyber-Archeologist” Maurizio Forte

UC Merced's Maurizio Forte

In the first episode of the UCTV Prime series “Our Digital Life,” UC Merced “cyberarcheologist” Maurizio Forte showcases the cutting-edge 3-D digital technology that’s transforming his field and, more specifically, his current research.

Here, Professor Forte elaborates on the exciting discoveries made at the site that’s featured in the program “The Past – Digital Archeology and History,” and the next cool tool he’s working on that will allow for remote, real-time archeology. (To dig even deeper into into Professor Forte’s 3-D Archeology project, with more photos and video, download this PowerPoint presentation.)

When and where did this trip take place? Who joined you to assist on the dig?

This fieldwork is part of a broader interdisciplinary research project titled “3D-Digging at Çatalhöyük.” This initiative is part of the Çatalhöyük Research Project, led by Ian Hodder of Stanford University. This site is located in Turkey in Central Anatolia, near the city of Konya and we started the project in 2010. We are at the third year and we assume to continue in the next years. During the archaeological fieldwork, several graduate and undergraduate students, post-docs and other colleagues from different international universities joined us. This year, for example, our team hosts students from six different universities.

How and why did you target this site?

Students at work in the midden area (description and documentation of layers). On the left Maurizio Forte near a time of phase laser scanner (Trimble CX)

Çatalhöyük was discovered in the 1950s by the British archaeologist James Mellart and it was the largest known Neolithic site in the Near East. Since 1993, an international team of archaeologists, led by Professor Ian Hodder, has been carrying out new research on site.

Çatalhöyük is a unique example of pre-urban settlement, maybe “the first Neolithic city” of the world, when hunter-gatherer societies evolved into agricultural societies, which supported an increasingly large population. This phenomenon is well known as the “agricultural revolution,” a time that can be considered the dawn of modern societies.

The site rapidly became famous internationally due to the large size and dense occupation of the settlement, as well as the spectacular wall paintings and other art that were uncovered inside the houses. The narrative character of thewall paintings shows an elaborated symbolism and historical contextualization of the entire society.

Since February 2009, the site is inscribed in the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The specific critical conditions of the site (mud-brick dwellings, earth floors, artifacts, etc.) and the difficulties to preserve all the structures in situ in an open-air museum, recommend starting a very detailed and innovative documentation process with 3-D technologies, such as laser scanners, photogrammetry and computer vision. Every year, more than 100 scholars, experts, students and specialists of different disciplines work simultaneously on site: the media interest in the site is still very high worldwide.Ultimately the site was the ideal place for experimenting with new methodologies of archaeological excavation, digital documentation and reconstruction.

Conservation experts at work on wall paintings. In Building 80, on the lower register of the central east wall, we discovered multiple layers of plaster on which the same design had repeatedly been painted.

Can you tell us a little about the people who originally inhabited or visited this site? What was its purpose?

Very interesting and challenging question. Çatalhöyük lies on the Konya plain on the southern edge of the Anatolian Plateau at an elevation of just over 1000m above sea level. The site is made up of two mounds: Çatalhöyük East and Çatalhöyük West. Çatalhöyük East consists of 21m of Neolithic deposits dating from 7400-6000 B.C., with some later deposits. Çatalhöyük West is 6m high and is almost exclusively Chalcolithic (6000-5500 B.C.).

The life span of this community is very impressive: they kept building and rebuilding houses in the same place with the same techniques and symbolic paintings for thousands of years. It is quite clear that this place offered ideal environmental and strategic conditions for a long-life settlement: almost endless resources (wild animals, water, land), protection from potential enemies as it has a good geographical position and strong control on the plain. The town extended over 15.5 hectares (33.5 acres) and its population ranged from 3,000 to 8,000 people — and this was 9,000 years ago. For this community, the house is the central social unit: domestic and ritual activities, in fact, were performed inside the perimeter of a mud-brick building typically decorated by wall paintings.

According to Professor Ian Hodder, the general director of the archaeological project on Çatalhöyük, “There is also evidence of a scale community organization larger than a domestic unit. For example, wild bulls were used in collective feasting. In the art there are groups of people seen in the animal baiting scenes. Some degree of collective action must also have been involved in the wider use of the landscape for hunting, herding and farming[…] The social focus in much of the art, symbolism and rituals is on hunting, exchange and ancestry ” (from the book “The Leopard’s Tale,” Thames & Hudson, 2006, p.56). This community, however, was not isolated sinceit was also very active, for example, in the trade and exchange of obsidian.

The discovery of cow bones in a midden area (a deposit used out of the buildings)

How long were you there and what did you find and/or learn during your time there? Did anything surprise you? I work at Çatalhöyük every summer from 2010, digging a Neolithic house (B89) and other related structures. Well, this site is very impressive and really unique. I was very impressed and surprised by the architectural and social pattern of  this ancient town. Everything appears regulated by symbolic and cultural codes: the houses and the position of several items inside; the rituals and the role of ancestors in the social memory of the community; the layers of wall paintings; shape and orientation of the buildings. Last year we started the excavation of a house (building 89) and, even in the upper deposits, the good state of conservation of all the structures and wall paintings is very astonishing.

Discussions during the excavation of a Neolithic house (building 89) (Ian Hodder and James Taylor)


How have the 3-D data you’ve collected and analyzed helped inform your archeological research on the site and culture?

The 3-D virtual documentation and reconstruction of the site have multiple goals. During the archaeological fieldwork season 2010, it was possible to record in 3-D by laser scanners an entire area of excavation as beta test of a five-year program of documentation. The experiment was particularly interesting because it was conducted by using both optical scanners (resolution, 220 microns, 0.0087 inches) and time of flight-time of phase scanners (resolution 0.1 mm), combining different spectral and geometrical features.

After this season of fieldwork and data recording, we have meaningful 3-D datasets of three entire Neolithic buildings and related stratigraphies. A model of one of the Neolithic houses was thenupdated after the 2011 fieldwork, so that it is possible now to compare archaeological layers and datasets recorded in different years: 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. The virtual simulation system was the only way to spatially recompose the several layers of decoration and wall paintings revealed in different fieldwork seasons. This can open new perspectives at the level of methodology of research in archaeology, generating a more advanced digital pipeline from the fieldwork to a more holistic interpretation process in the use of integrated spatial datasets in three dimensions. More specifically, it should be able to define a new digital hermeneutics of the archaeological research and new research questions.

Virtual Reality visualization of archaeological stratigraphy within a collaborative Teleimmersive System (midden area)

In this case the 3-D documentation of the new excavation areas could be linked and georeferenced with layers and datasets recorded in the past, reconstructing at the end a complete 3-D map of the site and of the entire stratigraphiccontext. Thus, it will be possible to redesign the relative chronology of the site and the several phases of settlement. In fact, the reconstruction of the Neolithic site in thousands of years of continuous occupation and use is still very difficult and controversial. The 3-D recontextualization of artifacts in the virtual excavation is otherwise important for the interpretation of different areas of any single house or for studying possible social activities perpetuated within the site.

Other important research questions regard the sequence and re-composition of wall art paintings and, in general, the decoration of buildings with scenes of social life, symbols or geometrical shapes. For example in the buildings 77, it was possible to recompose the entire sequence of paintings after fours years of excavation, but this entire sequence is not visible on the site anymore since the paintings are very fragile and cannot be preserved in situ. In short, the only way to study them is in a virtual environment with all the links to their metadata and stratigraphic contexts.

Are you helping to develop other new technologies for archeologists? What do you hope comes next for your field?

Yes I do. I am working on the development of a digital collaborative system called Teleimmersive Archaeology (TeleArch), which aims to integrate different data sources and provide real-time interaction tools for remote collaboration of geographically distributed scholars inside a shared virtual environment. The framework also includes audio, 2-D and 3-D video streaming technology to facilitate remote presence of users. In the future we should be able to reconstruct archaeological excavations in real time.

And, finally, the question everyone wants to know — is it cooler to be a “cyber-archeologist” or Indiana Jones?

Well, this is a typical question that we as archaeologists get asked often …Indiana Jones is really the “anti-archaeologist” par excellence (the opposite of what an archaeologist should be…). Let me answer just with a joke: Indiana Jones is pure fiction, cyber-archaeology is not. It is the most advanced expression of scientific archaeology.

Watch “Our Digital Life (Ep.1): The Past — Digital Archeology and History”

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