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City Archaeology Program Brings the Past to Life with LiDAR

The City of Boston Archaeology Program is expanding their digitization efforts by embracing LiDAR technology.

A 3Dmodel showing an overhead view of an archaeological excavation in Roxbury
A 3D scan of the excavation site at 42-44 Shirley St. in Roxbury made using LiDAR .

While not new by any means, using LiDAR in the past required expensive equipment and specialized training. Now, thanks to new developments in cell phone technology, the Program has access to handheld LiDAR which is revolutionizing the way the team records archaeological site data and makes it available for the public to interact with.

What is LiDAR anyway? LiDAR stands for “light detection and ranging.” Essentially, it bounces lasers off a surface (say, the surface of an archaeological site) and measures the time it takes that light to bounce back to the receiver. This data can then be used to create high-resolution 3D maps of these surfaces. 

The City of Boston Archaeology Program has been using laser scanning technology for years to create interactive 3D models of artifacts, many of which can be viewed at the Program’s Sketchfab site. LiDAR allows researchers to use this technology on a much larger scale.

An overlay of historic maps of the Shirley-Eustis estate with red arrows highlighting where the stable and mansion were moved to in the 1860s.
A historic map overlay showing the locations

of the stable and mansion buildings in 1855

(highlighted in red) and 1877. The red arrows

show where the buildings were moved to.

The team’s first foray into site documentation using LiDAR was at the 42-44 Shirley Street site in Roxbury. This site is the original location of the 18th-century Shirley-Eustis House. In the 1860s, the house was moved to make way for the construction of Shirley Street. The two-family house currently standing on the parcel was once one half of the stable building associated with the Shirley-Eustis House. It was moved onto the parcel at the same time the Shirley-Eustis House was moved. It is believed that the stable building was also used as housing for the enslaved individuals that lived and worked on the property in the 18th century.

A photograph and measured drawing side by side showing the soil stratigraphy in an archaeological unit.
A profile photograph and measured profile illustration of the north wall of Trench 1.

Using their Iphone 13 Max Pro and the free Scaniverse app, the team used LiDAR to scan the interior of the western half of 42-44 Shirley Street, including the third floor where enslaved individuals likely lived.

Now, the team has a high-resolution 3-dimensional record of the interior of the c.1747 building to study at any time. The Archaeology team then systematically scanned the ground surface and interior floors and walls of all of the trenches they excavated during their below-ground investigations.

A 3D model of the interior of one half of the former stable building at 42-44 Shirley St.
A 3D scan of the interior of the west half of 42-44 Shirley Street.

Archaeologists typically record field data using photographs, measured drawings, and written notes. Now, the City Archaeology team can record extremely accurate data by simply scanning a site and producing a near-perfect high-resolution 3D model, like this one of our 42-44 Shirley Street excavation. The best part is that these models are all publicly accessible online! Anyone in the world can virtually walk through the stable building and examine the timber framing or take a close-up look at the cobble surface the team unearthed in the yard. 

The City of Boston Archaeology Program prides itself on rigorous archaeological research around Boston and is thrilled to add this incredible new technology to its toolkit. Not only does it add another layer of accurate documentation to the archaeological process, but it also helps the team bring the excitement of their excavations right into the homes of Bostonians and archaeology fans worldwide!


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