Emerging Fields: James Newhard on the Future of Studying the Past

Emerging Fields: James Newhard on the Future of Studying the Past

You won’t always find James Newhard exhuming delicate artifacts with a trowel or handbroom.

For Newhard, director of the College of Charleston’s program in archaeology and associate professor of classics, the task of studying ancient civilizations is just as easily accomplished with the aid of geospatial 3D modeling, airborne drones, and 3-D or Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). He works to find archaeological applications for cutting-edge technologies.

RELATED: Learn more about the College’s Program in Archaeology

Newhard specifically focuses on landscapes and regional archaeology, surveying vast landscapes to look for clues about civilizations aboveground. To make sense of the wide variety of information, ranging from ancient texts to satellite imagery, archaeologists often use databases to organize the information they collect, as well as geospatial modeling to understand the complex relationship between humans and the natural landscape.

James Newhard - program in archeology

James Newhard, director of the Program in Archeology

Those tools and techniques are soon to be supplemented by new technology. The College plans to purchase a drone with applications for geospatial, environmental, and archaeological research.

“Drones have the capacity for performing high-volume data collection,” Newhard said. “You can fly a drone over a particular site, and if you’ve got two cameras mounted on it within a matter of days you will have a very nice, high-resolution, perfectly geo-rectified image of a place that would have taken you years to get otherwise. It’s shortening our data-collection time tremendously.”

While Newhard prefers aboveground data collection to excavation, imagery collected from drone flights will reveal information below the surface as well. “We can capture stereoscopic images and develop 3-D imagery and topography off of those. With the right kind of camera, we will be able to take an infrared image that can give us more information in terms of soil type, vegetation type, we can look for different readings of soil temperature which will tell us about sub-soil features.”

This kind of subterranean data will be immensely valuable to Newhard and others, especially in areas where ground-based remote sensing methods are extremely difficult or impossible. “The drone technology is allowing us to get a sense of subterranean features in places with rough or rocky terrain where we otherwise couldn’t do belowground sensing,” he said.

RELATED: Read more about Newhard in this Gizmodo article

To bring the cutting-edge technologies at his disposal into the classroom, Newhard starts at the beginning, bringing new life to a field known for its study of the opposite. “We’ll teach students in lower levels about these kinds of technology to show them where the field is heading, and as they advance to higher level classes they can participate in the research and learn to use these technologies.”

In the years since Newhard attended graduate school, archaeological technologies have advanced not only his own and his colleagues’ research, but also the speed at which undergraduate students can become involved in hands-on projects.

“It only takes students a few years to get engaged and involved with real-world data,” Newhard said. “That’s very different than when I was a student. I was looking up things in books and learning in lectures throughout college with little application. Today, as students learn about ancient civilizations, it’s much easier to pair their emerging knowledge with the emerging technology.”

Newhard’s classes at the College provide a lab in more than one way. While his students analyze data and complete field work, they also rapidly adapt to the emerging innovations in archaeology that some practiced archaeologists have yet to take on.

As for the future of a field focused on the past, Newhard said, “Immersive landscapes are something that I would really like to move into. The computer systems in the College’s Center for Social Science Research and the Santee-Cooper GIS Laboratory are optimized to move into this notion of the virtual landscape. We can use gaming environments to create those ancient landscapes, to virtually put ourselves in those landscapes. I think we owe it to our students to experiment and include those types of applications.”