When the National Geographic Society awarded its first archaeology grant to Hiram Bingham in 1912, the archaeologist headed off to Machu Picchu with one of the most advanced pieces of technology at the time: a Kodak panoramic camera. More than a hundred years later, archaeologists have a staggering array of technological tools to employ, from remote-sensing equipment that allows us to “see” beyond the visual bandwidth to computers so powerful that they can process in a second what it would take humans thousands of years to do.
“There’s a reason why National Geographic is calling the 21st century the “new age of exploration,” says archaeologist and Society fellow Fredrik Hiebert. “The opportunities for what we can discover in this century — and the questions we’ll finally be able to answer — seem almost limitless.”
With that enthusiasm in mind, we asked Hiebert to share his predictions on what we may be able to look forward to in this new century of discovery:
1. Discovering previously unknown cities—or even civilizations—in Central and South America
“Archaeologists are using LiDAR [light detection and ranging] to literally ‘see’ beneath dense jungle canopies in places like Honduras and Belize to locate settlements that we weren’t aware existed,” says Hiebert.
A mosaic discovered last year inside an immense, marble-walled tomb near the ancient site of Amphipolis in northern Greece stirred speculation that the tomb belonged to a member of Alexander the Great’s family. [PHOTOGRAPH BY ARISTIDIS VAFEIADAKIS/ZUMA PRESS/CORBIS]
2. Finding the tomb of Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great
Technology like ground-penetrating radar (GPR) enables archaeologists to look underground without digging, says Hiebert. For National Geographic’s Valley of the Khans Project, his team used satellite imagery to identify potential locations for the burial site of Genghis Khan, and then “ground-truthed” the areas with GPR to determine their viability. “While we didn’t locate the tomb of Genghis Khan at the time, it’s a great way to survey large areas of land for what might be a relatively small feature. Ultimately it’s a numbers game: The more area you’re able to survey, the more likely you are to find something. Why not the tomb of Genghis Khan? Or Alexander the Great?”
An army of lifelike clay soldiers guards the vast tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor. Archaeologists have yet to explore the dark secrets of the emperor’s burial mound. [PHOTOGRAPH BY O. LOUIS MAZZTENTA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE]
3. Entering the tomb of China’s first emperor
Archaeologists know the location of the burial site of Qin Shi Huang Di—surrounded by his Terracotta Warriors in X’ian—but the potential of damaging items preserved in the tomb for more than 2,000 years makes them reluctant to open it. “Remote-sensing tools like GPR and magnetometers can give us an idea of the interior structure, and eventually we’ll have tiny robotic devices that can enter the tomb and collect data with negligible disturbance,” says Hiebert.
Phaistos on the island of Crete was one of the most important centers of Minoan civilization. Powerful computers could help researchers decipher the Minoans' mysterious writing system, known as Linear A. [PHOTOGRAPH BY GORDON GAHAN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE]
4. Deciphering the mystery language of the ancient Minoans
It’s been more than a century since the powerful Minoan civilization of the Mediterranean was uncovered, but scholars are still unable to decipher their language, known as Linear A. “So far we have more than 1,400 examples of Linear A to study,” says Hiebert. “And now we have Big Data in our toolkit. Why don’t we put IBM’s Watson on the job?”
In the coastal desert of southern Peru, sprawling figures etched on the land have inspired wonder in air travelers since first spotted in the 1920s. [PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT CLARK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE]
5. Understanding the purpose of the Nasca lines
Researchers are still theorizing on the purpose of the Nasca lines. Do these elaborate geoglyphs in Peru represent constellations? Are they associated with water sources? Hiebert agrees with anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Johan Reinhard, who says that no single evaluation proves a theory about the Nasca lines. “This is where using increasingly powerful computer analysis to crunch big sets of geographical and archaeological data would be really important,” says Hiebert.
Frozen for 40,000 years, this mammoth calf was discovered in 2007 by reindeer herders in Siberia. Other long-frozen remains may emerge from shrinking ice sheets. [PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANCIS LATREILLE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE]
6. Recovering an intact Neanderthal
As global warming causes ice sheets and glaciers to retreat, it will be “very, very likely” that a well-preserved Neanderthal will one day emerge, says Hiebert, much like the 40,000-year-old baby mammoth found in Siberia.
Unearthing what she believes to be a Viking outpost, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland (in orange jacket) and her colleagues work in Baffin Island’s Tanfield Valley. [PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID COVENTRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE]
7. Confirming large-scale Viking presence in North America
Just as increasing temperatures will make glaciers reveal their secrets, the thawing coasts of Canada will expose a network of Viking settlements that will force us to rewrite the “discovery” of the Americas, Hiebert predicts. “We already have identified two Viking sites in the Americas, and once we better understand the nature of these settlements, I’ll bet you we’ll start recognizing them all along the Atlantic coast. It’s not impossible to imagine.”