Imagine having the ability to view perfectly rendered digital versions of archaeological sites and the artefacts they contain all from your computer. This dream is being made possible by a new piece of equipment that the UNE Archaeology Department recently received.

This specialised piece of technology is a ZF 3D terrestrial laser scanner which enables the capturing of high detail real world environments which can be used to create a model of a landscape in a 3D space – acting as a teaching, research and engagement tool for the future.

The most obvious use of this equipment is its capacity to scan environments and replicate them virtually for use in distance teaching. UNE, especially the Department of Archaeology, Classics and History, has been evolving their means of remote learning for many years, even prior to COVID which saw the cancellation of many field schools over the past two years. Access to this newest piece of cutting edge technology further expands the possibilities.

Patrick Hughes, Emma Watt, Martin Gibbs, Mick Morrison, Nathan Wright, Tani Cooper and Matthew Jones.

Not only does the new 3D terrestrial scanner allow for new ways of teaching, but new teaching itself as students and industry professionals may be able to learn to use landscape scanning technology from proficient UNE staff members going forward. As noted by Associate Professor Mick Morrison “It’s the way of the future”.

While several members of the Archaeology department were being trained to use the terrestrial scanner they described some of on the benefits of having this invaluable piece of technology.

“It is important for us in Australia because it’s not invasive,” said Professor Martin Gibbs while highlighting the devices’ importance for archaeological sustainability. “Other recording techniques often require you to get up close and personal with artefacts like rock art which is very, very fragile – whereas with this we can step away and don’t need to be so close to capture data.”

“I suppose this is archaeology’s response to the university’s digital strategy,” Professor Gibbs continued. “It’s not just about our students or our own research, it is UNE’s engagement with multiple communities. For example, we are planning to take it out for a historical cemetery survey for one of the Aboriginal communities just up the road in Tabulam sometime in January as well. So this will serve multiple purposes.”

Dr Nathan Wright, whose research will benefit greatly from access to the new 3D terrestrial scanning technology, provided an example of the kind of innovation that it could be used for:

“A lot of what I am researching relates to Aboriginal food and you might think a 3D laser scanner and photogrammetry doesn’t have much to do with food, but it can still be used to inform this research.”

“One of the applications I would like to use this on is in Mithika Country where there are huge sandstone quarries. We would like to scan those and get 3 dimensional data which then allows us to extrapolate how much material has been removed and used as sandstone grindstones. This then gives us an idea of labour intensity and that labour intensity tells us how many people were there, and how many people then required how much food. So from doing a single scan we are actually answering questions about how many people might have been there, what kind of food they might have been eating and how they managed that food in that type of landscape.”

Martin Gibbs, Nathan Wright and Emma Watt

Dr Wright also discussed the level of complexity that terrestrial scanning technology allows, as it enables ‘incredibly complex spaces’ to be mapped and interconnected with other digital landscapes. This will eventually allow for virtual learning spaces where an archaeological site can be explored completely through digitally scanned models and landscapes.

Associate Professor Mick Morrison went into more detail about this when he discussed the long term plans for 3D modelling:

“We’ve got the capacity to digitise things at all scales now. For example satellite imagery from a landscape perspective which we will then be able to integrate models with 3D scanner results so you can zoom from a landscape into a site. Being able to – in virtual reality space – visit a site and zoom into objects or the details of a particular rock shelter. We are not quite there yet, but that is where this technology is going and that is what we need to be able to produce for communities.”

With this new technology the future is open for this to be a reality which will benefit research and teaching at UNE, but it will also act as an immense boon for the communities that university engages with. As Dr Wright noted “This technology enables us to build a relationship with community, with students, with Indigenous partnerships, curate them and maintain them long term and that is something that as a university is critically important to what we do. It is right at the core of what we do and it is being enabled by that machine.”