For some modern-day archaeologists, shovels and picks are now ancient history. The tools leading to breakthrough discoveries today are microscopes, DNA sequencing and artificial intelligence, according to professors who launched a new joint initiative in archaeological sciences between the University of Haifa and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology on Wednesday.
The Technion and the University of Haifa’s School of Archaeology and Maritime Cultures are delving into archaeology on a microscopic level and uncovering new information about daily life. The joint initiative will encourage and support cooperation between the two institutions, including sharing expertise and lab equipment, and fund a total of eight research positions from master’s to post-doctorates for students who undertake research that bridges the two schools.
Although many archaeologists across Israel collaborate with professors and labs at different universities, this is one of the first formal collaborations between multiple faculties at the schools, rather than just individuals.
Dozens of researchers, students, and archaeology buffs from around Israel came to a seminar that launched the collaboration on Wednesday at the Technion. Archaeologists who are already utilizing cutting-edge archaeological sciences delivered eight short lectures.
“Archaeology is like this really massive ship that was going in one direction 20 years ago, and now it’s going in a completely different direction,” Prof. Israel Finkelstein, the director of the School of Archaeology and Maritime Cultures at the University of Haifa, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
“Before, the ship was going in the traditional direction, which we now call ‘macroarchaeology.’ This is archaeology you can see with your regular eyes and the kind where you don’t need scientific labs,” said Finkelstein.
While discoveries such as fortresses, altars, stone walls, sculptures, coins, scroll fragments and figurines are impressive — and easy to photograph — in the past decade archaeology has also turned inward, down to the cellular level, Finkelstein said.
There’s been an explosion of research using cutting-edge scientific methods. On Wednesday, archaeologists from the University of Haifa presented their research on DNA extraction of ancient grape seeds to identify their closest living relative; biochemical analysis of animal waste; AI and algorithms to identify flint and tooth marks on animal bones from 40,000 years ago; and chemical analysis to identify cannabis resin on an ancient altar. These research methods have allowed new insights into the daily life of people whose habitats have already undergone excavation by archaeologists for decades.
These new developments require highly specialized labs and researchers with expertise in the specific relevant methodology. For that reason, institutions find it helpful to collaborate and pool resources.
Researchers from the Technion and the University of Haifa have already cooperated on a few scattered projects, but the aim of the network is to further strengthen ties.
The effort was already on display Wednesday at the seminar. Prof. Deborah Cvickel of the University of Haifa, who collaborated with the Technion’s Prof. Moris Eisen, of the chemistry faculty, explored how ancient sails were protected from water and salt in the 8th century for the recreation of the Maagan Michael II boat.
Where archaeology and exact sciences meet
Finkelstein, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, is one of Israel’s preeminent archaeologists. He has published more than 400 articles and a dozen books, and his research utilizing new scientific methods has revolutionized how archaeologists around the world understand ancient Israel. He has received the Dan David prize in Israel and is a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, an international member of the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
After joining the University of Haifa a little over a year ago, one of his major goals was setting up a more formal conduit for collaboration with the Technion, he said.
“At the University of Haifa, we also have researchers at very high levels of scientific research, but it’s really important to cross the bridge to the direction of computer sciences, material sciences, chemistry, and biology, and places where the Technion is really strong,” he said. “When more researchers get together to brainstorm, it becomes even more powerful.”
“The researchers today really proved a point that there’s no modern archaeological research without exact sciences,” said Prof. Assaf Marom, the head of the Technion’s Anatomy Education at the Faculty of Medicine and the principal investigator of the Anatomy and Human Evolution Lab.
Researchers today really proved a point that there’s no modern archaeological research without exact sciences
“I think Technion students, when they’re introduced to archaeology and shown how these scientific methods can be applied to archaeology, they’re going to want to be a part of this,” said Marom. “It’s about being able to study things like, how did we get to be who we are? What happened in the history of humanity?”
Sparking new connections, by cable car and cooperation
Both Marom and Finkelstein agreed that there’s one piece of technology that made cooperation even easier: Haifa’s new public transportation cable car, launched in April of last year, which runs constantly between the two universities and to the HaMifratz Central Train and Bus Station. The cable cars mean the two universities are now separated by a simple 10-minute jaunt high above the trees, with a view of the Mediterranean sparkling in the distance.
This coming spring semester, University of Haifa professors will teach a course at the Technion offering an introduction to archaeological sciences, to provide Technion students an overview of what kind of research is already being conducted. They hope the course will spark interest within the new cohort and encourage future cooperation. Marom said an unprecedented 300 Technion students enrolled in his course, Evolution of Humans, in the coming semester, showing that students are excited to jump into the field.
From 2009 to 2014, Finkelstein co-directed the European Research Council-funded project “Reconstructing Ancient Israel: The Exact and Life Sciences Perspective” with Prof. Stephen Weiner, the founder and director of the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science at the Weizmann Institute. Weiner was one of the first archaeologists to bring lab equipment onto the excavation site, a move that Finkelstein said has completely revolutionized the way excavations are handled today.
Today, the items that can provide so much information — ash from a fire, bone shards, ground seeds, or other organic material — are easy to overlook and accidentally throw out. When labs are onsite, archaeologists can run tests and make sure these microscopic bits don’t get lost, and decide in real time how and what to excavate.
Finkelstein said watching the macro-to-microarchaeology revolution during his career has been both challenging and interesting, requiring researchers to open their minds to completely new directions.
“We’ve always been asking questions about history and trying to draw interpretations from that,” said Finkelstein. “But now, in the middle, between the question and the interpretation, we’re able to do new scientific research. That’s something incredibly special, to combine history, humanities, and scientific research, and it’s allowing us to interpret things in a new way.”