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3D-scanning Napoleon's battlefield at Borodino

by Bruno Van de Casteele

October 6, 2013

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Donate The company Artec 3D recently reported on work they did for the Russian academy of sciences in scanning the battlefield of Borodino. This is the site of the major battle in Napoleon's 1812 campaign in Russia, and probably one of the biggest battles in the nineteenth century. There were 250 000 troops involved, with about 70 000 casualties.

Even though Napoleon technically won, it was far from being a decisive victory. Napoleon afterwards went on to occupy Moskou, but eventually had to retreat. This "strategic withdrawal", as David Markam and Cameron Reilly called it in their Napoleon Bonaparte podcast, was in fact a complete disaster, resulting in the "Grande Armee" being decimated. On his way back, the troops had to pass the battlefield they had left only a few weeks earlier, and hardly any corpses had been buried. You can imagine the effect this had on the moral of the French troops and their allies.

The battlefield, including its landscape, has been kept more or less intact, and there are several archeological investigations ongoing. However, as the battlefield is enormous, it's clear that there is a lot of work to do. The Artec 3D company states that they were asked to try out one of their scanners on a small part of the battlefield. Archeological digs had already found there the remains of 11 soldiers and 38 horses, and had them uncovered. Normally archeologists then go ahead with pencil and paper and photographs to record every detail of these remains for posterity, a painstaking and long work.

Artec claims they completed the work in two hours, one for the scanning itself and one for post-processing. The results, according to the Russian archeologists, were impressive and of high quality. During the analysis after the "dig" (the longest and boring part of archeology), the results were used for detailed measurements and analysis.

And indeed, I'm impressed too. I'm all in favour of using modern technology and science to advance archeology (I wrote about such a case with rescue dogs here). The handheld scanner is used for scanning human persons (for use in plastic surgery and movies), and applying them to get real science done is a very nice thing. However the costs of these things are still above the average budget of an archeology department. As one blog (in German) reported it, the scanner that does 3D and also colour registration, goes for almost 16 000 euros, with an additional 500 for the software. Artec 3D provided these free of charge, and included some technicians to operate them (one of them nearly fainted during the work). I'm assuming they considered this a nice public relations opportunity.

Which is not a bad thing, of course. Otherwise I wouldn't be reporting on it, and I'm happy to give credit to the company for supporting science. As for the price, I'm sure it will come down in the years to come. In any case, the cost of the scanner will pay for itself as it might help in rescue archeology, and allow for a quicker survey. As interesting finds are often found during construction, it might shorten the interruption that is often required by an archeological investigation. In all, that is not a bad evolution, and thanks to this company for playing a small part in this technological development.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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