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Meet archaeologist Tuna Kalayci: ‘How can we integrate robots into archaeology?’

In the course of 2020 the Faculty of Archaeology was bolstered by some new staff members. Due to the coronavirus situation, sadly, this went for a large part unnoticed. In a series of interviews we are catching up, giving the floor to our new colleagues. We kick off with Dr Tuna Kalayci, who joined the department of Archaeological Science.

No bank, no tie

The start of Tuna Kalayci’s career did not hint at a segue into archaeology. ‘Originally I trained to be a statistician. However, in the course of my studies I realized that I did not wanted to use my quantitative skills in a bank, nor wear a tie.’ That is where archaeology came in. ‘I started to learn about GIS, geophysical prospection, and other remote sensing techniques.’

In 2013 Tuna finished his PhD at the University of Arkansas. ‘My focus was on the Early Bronze Age collapse of Upper Mesopotamia. I built satellite remote sensing based mathematical models to see whether a climate crisis was the real reason of the collapse.’ This was followed by a postdoc in Greece on geophysical remote sensing, after which he got a Marie Curie individual fellowship at CNR-IPSC (Italy) and Durham University (UK). ‘Here I applied satellite imagery and Agent-Based Modelling for tracking movement patterns in Bronze Age Upper Mesopotamia. Then I got hired by Leiden for computational archaeology.’ Tuna is also affiliated to the SAILS programme to which he brings his interest in machine learning applications.

Machine learning can be vital in detecting settlements in historical satellite imagery

Machine learning

. ‘One of the things I am currently working on is to see whether we can use machine learning to automatically detect settlements in historical satellite imagery.’ The goal is that the computer will do the tedious and time-consuming work. ‘We know the AI is coming in full speed. We either provide a late critique, as we did for the GIS. Or, we also become developers of AI and tackle our own biases as we develop the tool itself.’ 

Another topic Tuna is working on is urbanism. ‘I am hoping that we can use these new technologies to reach a better understanding of cities, ancient or modern. Can we integrate the soundscape of a city and understand how sound travels through a city? Or the smell! The physical principles are rather similar.’

Roads and traffic are a returning feature in his research. ‘Can we use modern traffic studies on how traffic works and apply that to the past? We may even find new ways of building cities, not only have the modern feeding the past, but also the other way around. Archaeologists have a lot to say when it comes to ‘Smart’ Cities, for instance.’ 

Robotic surveys

You found this groundbreaking? Then you have not heard Tuna talk about robots. ‘We want to explore whether we can integrate robotics into archaeology. Currently, we are working together with colleagues from Delft University and exploring a basic question: could weutilize swarm robots to do surveys for us?’ Picture small robots walking across a field, locating sherds with pinpoint accuracy. ‘There are many developments happening in the realm of AI and robotics, and archaeology needs to be part of that.’

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