AI-ncient Pottery: Northern Arizona University Researchers Use Machine Learning to Study Distant Cultures

by Angie Lee

The more advanced modern technologies become, the more they can help us understand the past.

Chris Downum and Leszek Pawlowicz, researchers in the Department of Anthropology at Northern Arizona University, are using GPU-based deep learning algorithms to categorize sherds — tiny fragments of ancient pottery.

They spoke with NVIDIA AI Podcast host Noah Kravitz about analyzing sherds to learn more about American Southwest culture, circa 825 to 1300 A.D.

Key Points From This Episode:

  • For nearly a century, archaeologists have closely examined sherds to determine their time periods and cultural affiliations. However, human interpretations of the same sherd often vary — driven by ambiguity, mere differences in opinion and a lack of familiarity with the millions of pottery typologies that exist. Downum and Pawlowicz use machine learning to help researchers and students more objectively classify these ancient pottery fragments.
  • Neural networks, trained on massive image datasets of sherds that were classified in agreement with expert archaeologists, determine a sherd’s typology. Results are displayed with “heat maps” which highlight sections of the sherd that the AI model found most crucial to its characterization.


“These machine learning methods basically teach themselves the critical design parameters that are associated with each [sherd] type.” — Leszek Pawlowicz [5:22]

Machine learning “adds a lot of objectivity and reliability to the process of classifying complex artifacts.” — Chris Downum [18:43]

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