Washington, September 28 : Thanks to an automated system developed by a team of Princeton University computer scientists, archaeologists in Greece will now be able to virtually reconstruct wall paintings that hold valuable clues to the ancient culture of Thera, an island civilization that was buried under volcanic ash more than 3,500 years ago.
According to David Dobkin, the Phillip Y. Goldman '86 Professor in Computer Science and dean of the faculty at Princeton, the new technology has the potential to change the way people do archaeology.
"This approach really brings in the computer as a research partner to archaeologists," said Dobkin, who got the inspiration for the project after a 2006 visit to the archaeological site of Akrotiri on the island of Thera, which in present-day Greece is known as Santorini.
To design their system, the Princeton team collaborated closely with the archaeologists and conservators working at Akrotiri, which flourished in the Late Bronze Age, around 1630 B.C.E.
Reconstructing an excavated fresco, mosaic or similar archaeological object is like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle, only far more difficult.
The original object often has broken into thousands of tiny pieces - many of which lack any distinctive color, pattern or texture and possess edges that have eroded over the centuries.
As a result, the task of reassembling artifacts often requires a lot of human effort, as archaeologists sift through fragments and use trial and error to hunt for matches.
While other researchers have endeavored to create computer systems to automate parts of this undertaking, their attempts relied on expensive, unwieldy equipment that had to be operated by trained computer experts.
The Princeton system, by contrast, uses inexpensive, off-the-shelf hardware and is designed to be operated by archaeologists and conservators rather than computer scientists.
The system employs a combination of powerful computer algorithms and a processing system that mirrors the procedures traditionally followed by archaeologists.
"We mimic the archaeologists' methods as much as possible, so that they can really use our system as a tool," said Szymon Rusinkiewicz, an associate professor of computer science whose research team led the Princeton effort.
"When fully developed, this system could reduce the time needed to reconstruct a wall from years to months. It could free up archaeologists for other valuable tasks such as restoration and ethnographic study," he added.