"Tomb Raider" Has Nothing on Real Archaeological Tech

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 31, 2003

In the movie Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life, intrepid archaeologist Lara Croft, played by Angelina Jolie, uses state-of-the-art technology like a multipurpose digital media device—the Panasonic AV20/30 eWear/d-Snap—and a customized Jeep that can handle Africa's rugged off-road conditions.

But as well equipped as she is, Lara Croft has nothing on the real-life archaeologists when it comes to technology.

While dirt diggers are trading in their trowels for ground-penetrating radar and remote sensing robots, underwater explorers have added multi-beam sonar and real-time video to their arsenal of tools.

New technology is transforming the field of archaeology, allowing researchers to make new finds and analyze sites in a way they were not able to do in the past.

"There are some fabulous new tools out there," said Cheryl Ward, a nautical archaeology professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Sonar Images

New science and technology are revolutionizing marine archaeology in particular. Many of the mysteries of the sea—from shipwrecks to sunken cities—lay buried at depths that have previously been beyond exploration.

Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others use high-resolution, side-scan and multi-beam sonar aboard ships to scan the bottom of the ocean. The new technology produces three-dimensional models of the sea floor.

High-resolution side-scan sonar can be used to locate shipwrecks on the ocean floor and create accurate depictions of the wreck sites.

Last year, NOAA obtained three new side-scan sonar images of the coastal steam ship Portland, which sank off the coast of Massachusetts in 1898 and now rests on the ocean floor. The images clearly show the side-by-side smoke stacks and the metal walking beam that provided power to the paddle wheels. A mission to explore the Portland is scheduled for next year.

In one of the most technologically advanced expeditions ever, famed undersea explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the RMS Titanic in 1975 and is a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, leads a team of scientists this summer to explore ancient shipwrecks in the Black Sea.

Ballard brought with him a whole array of new toys, including the first undersea vehicle designed specifically for deep water excavation: Hercules. This new robot carries advanced visual and acoustic sensors and high-definition television systems that make it possible to do archeological excavation of delicate objects in water with poor visibility.

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