New technology allows archaeologists to use particle physics to explore the past

Naples, Italy — Beneath the honking horns and operatic yelling of Naples, the most blissfully chaotic city in Italy, archaeologist Raffaella Bosso descends into the deafening silence of an underground maze, zigzagging back in time roughly 2,300 years.

Before the Ancient Romans, it was the Ancient Greeks who colonized Naples, leaving behind traces of life, and death, inside ancient burial chambers, she says.

She points a flashlight at a stone-relief tombstone that depicts the legs and feet of those buried inside.

“There are two people, a man and a woman” in this one tomb, she explains. “Normally you can find eight or even more.”

This tomb was discovered in 1981, the old-fashioned way, by digging.

Now, archeologists are joining forces with physicists, trading their pickaxes for subatomic particle detectors about the size of a household microwave.

Thanks to breakthrough technology, particle physicists like Valeri Tioukov can use them to see through hundreds of feet of rock, no matter the apartment building located 60 feet above us.

“It’s very similar to radiography,” he says, as he places his particle detector beside the damp wall, still adorned by colorful floral frescoes.

Archeologists long suspected there were additional chambers on the other side of the wall. But just to peek, they would have had to break them down.

Thanks to this detector, they now know for sure, and they didn’t even have to use a shovel.

To understand the technology at work, Tioukov takes us to his laboratory at the University of Naples, where researchers scour the images from that detector.

Specifically, they’re looking for muons, cosmic rays left over from the Big Bang.

The muon detector tracks and counts the muons passing through the structure, then determines the density of the structure’s internal space by tracking the number of muons that pass through it.

At the burial chamber, it captured about 10 million muons in the span of 28 days.

“There’s a muon right there,” says Tioukov, pointing to a squiggle line he’s blown up using a microscope.

After months of painstaking analysis, Tioukov and his team were able to put together a three-dimensional model of that hidden burial chamber, closed to human eyes for centuries, now opened thanks to particle physics.

Archaeologists use high-tech subatomic particle detectors to make new discoveries
A three-dimensional model of a hidden burial chamber in Naples, Italy, that was made by researchers using particle physics. March 2024.

CBS News

What seems like science fiction is also being used to peer inside the pyramids in Egyptchambers beneath volcanoes, and even treat cancer, says Professor Giovanni De Lellis.

“Especially cancers which are deep inside the body,” he says. “This technology is being used to measure possible damage to healthy tissue surrounding the cancer. It’s very hard to predict the breakthrough that this technology could actually bring into any of these fields, because we have never observed objects with this accuracy.”

“This is a new era,” he marvels.