2021 The Year Virtual Archaeology Fights Back
The 2020 lockdowns saw thousands of planned archaeological excavations canceled and postponed and those archaeologists who persisted at their projects faced serious challenges accessing archives, labs, reports and museum artifacts. But humankind is resilient and none more so than ingenious archaeologists, as 2021 has seen an array of amazing discoveries from mapping monuments in Erbil in Iraq to unearthing a female statue in Hidalgo Amajac, Álamo in Mexico; from finding a stash of gold in Újlengyel in Hungary to discovering a new passage from the Book of the Dead in Saqqara in Egypt, and from a deciphering symbols on a bone fragment found in Ramle in Israel to discovering shipwrecks of Kasos island, Greece, and that is just for January.
Even though the distribution of vaccines is appearing to be highly-effective against the spread of COVID-19, the days of large archaeological conferences in airport hotels, stretching over two or three days, have most probably ended as the pandemic has demonstrated the feasibility and benefits of virtual archaeology. Not only are virtual conferences cheaper but they appeal to a far wider audience. (Don’t miss out on the Ancient Origins Ancient Hi-Tech Uncovered April 2021 conference).
Adapting to lockdowns, many institutions have begun partially virtual excavations, an example of which is the current surveying at Erbil in Iraq. This mapping project was hindered when the 2020 lockdowns stopped foreign researchers from flying into Iraq, so they employed a small local team from the Erbil region who conducted the hands-on fieldwork while the scientists guided them, virtually. This innovative method of excavation not only cuts out the risks of contracting COVID-19, but it also eliminates the rising costs of accommodation, food and airfares.
Some of the monuments being partially virtually mapped at Erbil. Clockwise, from top: Downtown, Mudhafaria Minaret, Statue of Ibn al-Mustawfi, Citadel of Erbil. ( CC BY-SA 4.0)
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting economic downturn, have not only slowed down planned excavations but they have directly threatened the viability of many famous archaeological sites, but with vaccines slowly gaining pace, so too are the rate of new discoveries as teams of researchers dust off their trowels and get back onto the field.
It was always going to be a big year for archaeology when less than 48 hours after the opening of 2021 the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) announced that farmers digging in a citrus grove near Mexico's Gulf coast discovered a two-meter (six-foot) tall statue of a pre-Hispanic female figure.
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Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history. www.ashleycowie.com.
Top Image: "Battle of Centaurs and Wild Beasts" was made for the dining room of Hadrian's Villa and estimated to be made between 120–130 AD. The mosaic now resides in the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany. (Public Domain)
By Ashley Cowie