Given the fragile and temporal nature of archaeological sites, heritage monuments, and associated material goods, laser scanning offers amazing potential for digital recording and analysis in archaeology and heritage preservation. Simply scanning an historic monument in its current state or a collection of artifacts ensures that even if the physical structure or objects disappear, a digital copy is there for future observation and analysis. Numerous projects in archaeology have used scanning as a means of digital documentation and to also promote archaeology to the general public. Scan datasets have an obvious visual appeal that engages audiences. By scanning an object or site, the digital version of the object can easily be revisited, viewed from any angle or direction, and easily shared or disseminated to others. The Virtual Hampson Museum, for example, is an online repository of 3D scanned pottery from a museum in Northeast Arkansas. The online museum is a wonderful tool for the public because it provides worldwide access to an astounding collection of Native American pottery that most would not be able to see. The Virtual Hampson Museum is also great for researchers and archaeologists because it allows them to remotely study and analyze the collection using 3D processing software without physically having to travel to the museum.
Apart from digital recording and data dissemination, the analytical potential of laser scanning in archaeology is being explored in more projects. Point cloud datasets can contain a wealth of information and the software used to process these datasets provide precise measurement tools for measuring point to point distances, volume, perimeter, and surface area calculations (Simon et al 2009, 2).
Light raking and curvature mapping tools additionally provide the ability to accentuate features on an object that may not be easily observed by the naked eye or in photographs.
For example, in the Stonehenge laser scanning project, new carvings on some of the stones were revealed in the scan data that had not been observed in previous studies. Characteristic features in datasets such as pottery motifs can more easily, objectively, and repeatedly be extracted on the digital version of the object as compared to the physical version of the object. If used effectively, these types of measures can be automated across multiple datasets (Simon et al 2009, 2).
While laser scanning is still relatively new in archaeology, archaeologists are finally beginning to see past the "eye candy" aspect of the data to discover the true analytical potential in applying this technology to past and future research directions in archaeology and heritage.