Preserving the Past in 3D. Application of GIS and Photogrammetry to Human Burials

Presentation and Workshop with Francesco Coschino

Thursday, 13 December, 17:00-20:00

Oudemanhuispoort (Oudemanhuispoort 4-6), Room C1.23

This workshop presents preliminary results of an urban health analysis of medieval Bologna, as part of the Healthscaping Urban Europe project; this project is examining medieval health in Italy and the Low Countries, from AD 1200 to 1500. What was city life like in medieval Bologna? What were the health risks urban dwellers faced? This research uses GIS to correlate archaeological and historical information relating to urban infrastructure, waste disposal, and population before and after the Black Death. It examines how health and urban cleanliness differed within and around Bologna during this critical period, and how health promoting strategies changed over time.

Archaeology is, by its very nature, a destructive discipline: to uncover buried features we are forced to remove the past in layers, one by one, working back in time. The destruction of evidence that remained unaltered for centuries or millennia is the price we pay to learn about the past. When considering the excavation of any archaeological site, professionals should assess the impact of their actions and ensure that the results of their work outweigh the inevitable alteration of the subject matter.

The archaeological excavation of cemeteries has the potential to provide important information on the lifeways of past people, to complement historical records with physical evidence, and to ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten. Additionally, when a project aims to recover the past for the benefit of the entire community, archaeological investigations can play a major role in leading the restoration and preservation of valuable historical sites.

In recent years, technological advances have allowed archaeologists to incorporate tools and techniques that were developed in other disciplines, but whose application to archaeology has the potential to largely enrich our documentation capabilities. For instance, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), initially developed in cartography, now represent the gold standard for archaeological mapping and spatial analyses, with ever-growing applications and capabilities.

Digital photogrammetry is a more recent introduction into the archaeologist’s digital toolkit and its application to human burials holds high promise. Digital photogrammetry is a discipline based on photography and measurements that, by using photographs and specific software, allows to obtain a virtual model of an object that entirely preserves its original dimensional proportions.

One of the most important features of photogrammetry is that it gives researchers the ability to study objects without the need for physical interaction. This is particularly important when dealing with very fragile items, which may lay undisturbed in their original context (or in conditions suitable for their preservation). Photogrammetry is not limited to small objects, but can be applied also to larger structures (e.g., buildings) and objects that are inaccessible but visible. Ultimately, if something can be seen and photographed, it may be processed and converted into a 3D model. When applied to human burials, photogrammetry proves to be an exceptional means toward documentation and preservation that goes beyond conventional two-dimensional tools. In spite of the destructive nature of archaeology, photogrammetry allows to create a virtual replica of a burial, which will always be available for study even after the original feature has been removed from its original context. Furthermore, a 3D replica of a burial that may have been damaged or lost will always be much more revealing than a simple, conventional data sheet.

The contribution will examine the survey techniques and geographical management of data from archaeological and bio-archaeological contexts, focusing on some case studies in Italy and in the United States concerning episodes of cholera epidemics.

Francesco Coschino is a Medieval Archaeologist and Paleopathologist at the University of Pisa, Italy. He is the president of IRLAB (Institute for Research and Learning in Archaeology and Bioarchaeology), USA. His research interests involve archaeology, humanistic informatics, paleopathology and physical anthropology; he is particularly interested in computer models and their applications to collection and management of anthropological data. He is involved in anthropological/archaeological research and professional archaeological excavations and collaborates with Italian universities and institutions as well as Ohio State University.

Taylor Zaneri is a medieval archaeologist from New York. Her dissertation research examined the impact of lower-class rural producers in the emergence of the medieval city-state of Lucca, using geospatial, landscape, and zooarchaeological methods. She is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher as part of Dr. Guy Gelter’s Healthscaping Urban Europe project, using GIS to examine health and cleanliness in medieval Italian cities from 1200-1500.

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