Excursion on the topic of Computational Archaeology to Mongolia
In July and August this year, a group of students from the Faculty of Computer Science/Mathematics travelled to Mongolia. The participants of the excursion took part in the archaeological excavations and research of the Mongolian-German Archaeological Expedition in the Orkhon River Valley. During the excursion, the 10 participants worked on different projects at the interface between archaeology, informatics and remote sensing.
The destination of the excursion was the Orkhon River Valley, at the foot of the Khangaj Mountains. The region is of particular historical and archaeological interest, as it has repeatedly been the cradle and centre of great nomadic empires over the last two and a half millennia, decisively shaping the history of Eurasia and the world. Because of this world-historical significance, the region is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To this day, there are numerous, excellently preserved archaeological monuments from a wide variety of epochs, including the Palaeolithic, the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Hun Empire, the Old Turkic Empires, the Uyghur Empire, the Great Mongol Empire and the Manchurian Empire. Of particular interest are the two city ruins of the ancient Uyghur capital Karabalgasun and the capital of the Mongol Empire, Karakorum. Both sites have been explored for over 20 years by the Mongolian-German Expedition. Partners of this expedition are the Mongolian Academy of Sciences (MAW), the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the National University of Mongolia (NUM). HTW has been supporting the research and the presentation of the results since 2018 with its expertise in (media) computer science (Prof. Block-Berlitz) and geoinformation (Prof. Oczipka). Building on this cooperation, joint study programmes in Archaeoinformatics have been developed and offered between HTW and NUM since 2020 as part of the internationalisation project Future.EAST, funded by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service).
After the long flight from Frankfurt to Ulaanbaatar, the students were welcomed by Dr Hendrik Rohland (HTW/DAI) in Mongolia. After a few short errands on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, they went straight to the countryside to the destination of the excursion: The Orkhon Valley. Part of the group stayed in Karakorum to work in the museum, the other part continued to the expedition's excavation camp near Karabalagsun.
The first day of the excursion included a joint visit to the city ruins of Karakorm, the Buddhist monastery Erdene Zuu and the Karakorum Museum, where the archaeological finds are kept and presented. On the second day, the work on the projects began. The groups in Karakorum dealt with the photogrammetric 3D documentation of artefacts from the museum's depot. Various software packages and algorithms for reconstructing 3D models from photo series were tested and an intuitive user interface developed. At the same time, the groups developed a workshop for the museum's staff and Mongolian archaeology students, which was a great success. A second group worked on a prototype of a virtual museum guide, which should make it possible to experience and understand archaeological finds and historical lore directly at the excavation sites with the help of augmented reality.
Meanwhile, the group worked on remote sensing in Karabalgasun. In addition to the two large city ruins in the Orkhon valley, there are many other archaeological sites associated with them, including burial sites, smaller fortifications, old fields and other traces of historical landscape use. In order to understand the historical cultural landscape, precise measurement data of these monuments are necessary, for example in the form of digital terrain models. In these models, even the slightest unevenness of the terrain can be recognised. In this way, almost vanished ramparts, building ground plans or field furrows are made visible again. Only a few years ago, expensive laser scanners were necessary for such precise measurements. Today, thanks to photogrammetric methods (structure-from-motion), high-resolution 3D models can be generated at low cost with the help of commercially available multicopters with cameras.
In addition to excavations, another important method of gaining archaeological knowledge is fieldwalking survey: in order to estimate the extent and range of finds at a site, the area is walked in a regular grid. Finds discovered on the surface are marked and later measured, photographed, described and entered into a database. This forms the basis for further analysis and interpretation of the site. Based on preliminary work in previous project seminars, one group of the excursion worked on an app to support this data collection process. For this, a mobile device was connected to a differential GPS that can be operated directly from the app. The application summarises all steps from the measurement of the find site to the description of the find and enables the creation of a find database directly in the field, which can be used immediately for further analyses.
After only four days, the groups switched between Karakorum and Karabalgasun so that all participants could get a taste of the other projects. At the excavation camp, work continued on the creation of 3D models of both finds and exposed features on the excavation.
Afterwards, the excursion set off for the next destination, the Hun-period palace ruin "Luut Khot" further north in the Orkhon valley. In view of the very rough roads and a lengthy ferry crossing over the Orkhon, part of the excursion unfortunately had to stay behind halfway. The participants took the opportunity to explore the landscape on their own. After a small team had reached the city ruins and successfully carried out the necessary measurements, everyone met again at the picturesquely situated yurt hotel at Lake Ögij Nuur. Here, the last evening in the Mongolian steppe was spent together. The next morning, the excursion set off for the last stage of the travel, the modern Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar.
In Ulaanbaatar, the participants presented the results of their project work in a joint workshop with students and professors from the National University of Mongolia. The participants differnt topics such as app for the support of field survey activities, Augmented-Reality-Applications for the Museum, Basics of photogrammetric surveying with multicopters, and photgrammetric recording of artefacts. During the workshop, the Mongolian colleagues and students presented their own work, such as "Virtual Karakorum", a virtual reality application that takes the user back to the ancient Mongolian Karakorum of the 13th century.
Finally, there was one day left for sightseeing and independent exploration of the Mongolian capital before the participants set off on their return journey to Germany. This marked the end of an exciting and productive time in which many projects were carried out and many encounters took place between German and Mongolian students, professors, researchers and museum staff. This excursion - delayed by two years due to the Corona pandemic - within the framework of the project enabled all cooperation partners to get an impression of the great potential of cooperation. Both the Karakorum Museum and the National University of Mongolia emphasised their desire to continue and deepen the cooperation.
On the newspage of the National University of Mongolia, a report on the trip was published too, where more images can be found: Report on the newspage of NUM.
After returning to Dresden, the team is looking forward to the upcoming return visit of an excursion of Mongolian students in November this year.