X-ray vision. The virtual world of archaeology

Archaeologists and engineers from the University of Southampton are collaborating with the British Museum on a ground-breaking project to scan ancient artefacts, which could lead to a faster, cheaper and easier way to examine and share archaeological data.

Using world-leading X-ray imaging technology, they have been able to examine centuries-old buried objects in intricate detail – effectively ‘virtually’ excavating them.

Originally designed for the analysis of substantial engineering parts, such as aerospace gas turbine blades, powerful scanning equipment at Southampton’s µ-VIS Centre for Computed Tomography has been used to examine Roman coins buried in pots excavated from three UK hoards, dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. In addition, they have scanned one of 13 iron-age cauldrons discovered near Swindon, the largest find of its kind in Europe and items from the largest haul of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, the Staffordshire Hoard – including the iconic Pectoral Cross.

Just like a medical CAT scanner, the centre’s equipment is dedicated to looking inside objects without physically altering them. It rotates samples through 360 degrees, taking thousands of 2D images, which are then used to build detailed 3D representations.

In the case of the Roman coins, the exceptionally high energy / high resolution combination of the Southampton facilities allows them to be examined in exquisite detail without the need for physical excavation or cleaning. The high-level of information revealed in the scan images has allowed conservators to read inscriptions and identify depictions of emperors on the faces of coins, just as if they had been excavated by hand.

University of Southampton archaeologist, Dr Graeme Earl says, “Excavating and cleaning just a single coin, or indeed any object, can take hours or even days, but this technology gives us the opportunity to examine and identify them quickly and without the need for conservation treatment at this stage.

“The University’s Archaeological Computing Research Group can then take this one step further – producing accurate, high resolution CGI visualisations based on the scan data. This gives archaeologists and conservators around the world the opportunity to virtually examine, excavate and ‘clean’ objects.

“Computer simulations let us peel away corrosion and repair damage to objects in a ‘virtual’ environment, safe in the knowledge that we are, as far as possible, building our interpretations on solid ground. I think this combination of technology, traditional expertise and replication will have a transformative impact in the future on our understanding of archaeological materials which are currently too fragile to investigate, or which would be too expensive to record and conserve through traditional means.”

Dr Roger Bland, Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum comments, “This scanning technique is already yielding some fascinating results and the possibility of identifying a hoard of coins in a pot, without removing them, is very exciting. Working with archaeologists and engineers at Southampton, it is exciting to be pioneering and exploring the potential of a process which is faster, cheaper and less interventive than excavation.”

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Virtual archaeology at Southampton

"I think this combination of technology, traditional expertise and replication will have a transformative impact in the future on our understanding of archaeological materials which are currently too fragile to investigate, or which would be too expensive to record and conserve through traditional means."

Dr Graeme Earl, University of Southampton archaeologist
Roman coins - original scan image

Roman coins - original scan image

Just like a medical CAT scanner, the centre’s equipment is dedicated to looking inside objects without physically altering them.

A rendering of the Pectoral Cross

A rendering of the Pectoral Cross

Part of the largest haul of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, the Staffordshire Hoard.