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Archaeologist Samantha Porter Digs Deep, With a Digital Touch

From tree rings to Neanderthal tools to endangered corals, Samantha Thi Porter, Ph. D., helps uncover secrets long sought out by scientists and artists. She’s developed novel ways to use 3D scanning, 3D printing and virtual reality to better understand ancient artifacts and modern works of art.

Porter, a digital archaeologist, uses new technology to study old technology. She manages AISOS, the Advanced Imaging Service for Objects and Spaces, which opened in 2016 at the University of Minnesota.

Samantha Porter, Ph.D.
Samantha Porter, Ph.D.

“We might not be able to access an archeological site because it's on top of a mountain, and we might not be able to see small things because we need microscopes. Advanced imaging technologies can help us both from a research perspective, but also show people how cool stuff is both on a smaller and larger scale,” she says.

Porter has degrees in anthropology and urban design, but says many of her skills in this fast changing field are self-taught.

"I never took a single class officially in any of this stuff. That's both kind of scary, but also really exciting to know that there is just a wealth of information out there on YouTube, on forums,” she added.

The AISOS lab began serendipitously because of Porter’s eagerness to help another scientist create some imagery. She was working with dendrochronologist (tree ring expert) and Professor Daniel Griffin, Ph.D., to create some flatbed scans of tree cores.

“I overheard what he was doing and said, ‘I heard that there was this device called a GIGAmacro that a friend of mine at Notre Dame said might be cool for anthropology, I think it might work for you also.’”

That conversation soon became a collaboration, snowballing into a pioneering new lab with equipment that no single department would be able to afford on its own.

“So if I hadn't turned my chair around and just casually said, ‘Hey, here's an idea,’ none of that might have happened,” Porter says.

The largest item the AISOS lab has scanned is a volcano—drone imagery was used to create a 3D model. For extremely tiny samples, Porter uses a scanning electron microscope. It allows her to look at the chemical signatures of residues on ancient stone tools and helps determine what people were using those tools for some 40,000 years ago.

The AISOS lab is also exploring new uses for photogrammetry, the process of making 3D models from digital photographs. So far, it’s been used to study things like a mountain and a human ear bone, which is only a few millimeters in size. Porter and her colleagues’ jury-rigging and creativity now span the globe, working with scientists from Greenland to Malaysia to come up with solutions to capture particularly challenging images.

“If I figured out how to do this for stone tools in a museum, how do I help someone do this for living pieces of corals in water? How do I do this for someone working in the back of a cave, and might not have access to electricity?  It's fun to have that community, that sense of, ‘Let's all kind of tinker with this together and share what we're able to do,’" says Porter.

Porter credits her mother, Hoa Le, who always encouraged her to challenge normal boundaries, for her enterprising spirit. Le came to the United States from Vietnam as a refugee in 1975.

“She really instilled in me this independent spirit—this sense that sometimes life is going to come at you, and you can't sit by and just kind of go along with it. Sometimes you need to take initiative yourself and that's the best way to achieve what you want in life,” Porter remembers.

She now works to inspire a similar curiosity and courage in middle school girls as a AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador.

In July 2021, she joined other IF/THEN Ambassadors at the Jules’ Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Florida to participate in a video chat from 22 feet deep in a lagoon. They answered questions about proactive measures for coral restoration, as well as their passion for STEM research.

While most archaeological work looks back in time, Porter is keenly aware that a comprehensive digital archive can help future historians understand current events. She works with the organization Save The Boards to preserve plywood boards and other street art in the Twin Cities, created in response to the 2020 police murder of George Floyd and the social uprising that followed.

“So it's also about documenting these important pieces that are really ephemeral, just because of their material properties. I learned to preserve stuff from 40,000 years ago. How can we use these same technologies [to share] in the future what people were thinking and feeling at this moment?”

Both physical and digital preservation are indispensable to Porter and her field.

“Archeology is a destructive science. You only get one chance to excavate a site, you can't put it all back where it was. It's extremely important to document as you're going, what you're doing. It's not just important to document stuff for yourself and for the research, but to make sure that research can continue and be productive in the future,” she says.

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Marsha Walton

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