Keyhole Archaeology

Keyhole Archaeology

We’re always looking for challenges.

Do you know of hard-to-reach locations that may contain things that are waiting to be discovered?  Let us know.

There is still much to discover, especially if we are prepared to, and capable of, looking in challenging places. Legislation and attitudes are changing, so that there is a greater need to protect the places that we are surveying, exploring and excavating. Technology and techniques continue to improve on a daily basis, so that exploration using advanced equipment such as keyhole archaeology, allows us to reach places that could not previously be reached.

Three projects encouraged us to look into the idea of keyhole archaeology:

  • The Djedi robotic pyramid exploration, where we knew we could only peer through a tiny 25mm diameter hole.
  • A currently secret project to investigate mine shafts that may contain interesting artifacts.  One shaft had been deliberately sealed by explosion, but the shaft above it was open.  If we could drill down a few tens of feet from the open shaft to the sealed one, we could save a huge amount of excavation.  And the smaller we could make that drilled hole, the more quickly we could drill it.
  • A request to investigate technology that could be used to explore Shakespeare’s tomb.  Obviously, the authorities would be less likely to permit access through a huge hole, compared to a tiny 12mm hole.

For Djedi, we created the concept of a small “micro robot beetle”, and that would suit the small “hidden chamber” that we needed to investigate.  However, for larger spaces, tiny robots are not feasible.  There may be large obstacles to overcome, and long distances to crawl.  So for the mine, we created a robot geometry that could fit through around the same size hole as the tiny beetle, but that could transform itself into a large robot once it had passed through the hole – far more capable.  The deployed size is around 40x50cm.  This piece of mechanical ingenuity, “Minebot” was created by staff and technicians at the University of Leeds.

While the Shakespeare’s tomb project was eventually thwarted by politics, it did encourage us to sponsor a PhD at the university of Leeds.  Jason Liu mainly developed a “snake robot arm”.  The arm is articulated and incredibly slender.  It’s diameter is just 12mm so that it can fit through a very small hole, and yet it can reach up to 1.5m.  We believe that this is the highest length to diameter ratio of any such robot arm yet created.  The forces involved were huge, creating a formidable challenge for Jason.

Slender snake arm – the large structure to the right is the set of powerful actuators that are required to cope with the very large forces


Neil Shaw with his Backpack Drill

Keyhole archaeology needs a keyhole, and that hole (typically 25-30mm diameter for our purposes) needs to be created by a neat, clean, effective, efficient, lightweight and portable device.  This is where we need something like the Shaw backpack drill.

It’s a uniquely designed, handheld diamond core drilling tool that is portable, easy to use, fast penetrating, versatile and self-contained, and can be powered by a petrol or electric motor.  Great for getting into small spaces, and quickly drilling holes that are many 10s of feet deep.

The diamond core bits of the system are easily capable of advancing borings through a large array of subsurface materials including steel reinforced concrete, hard rock and some kinds of cemented gravels. Its loose materials bit can be used to make stable, open borings with the use of bentonite clay in flowing sand and very loose gravel, and in clay with the use of surfactants mixed in drilling fluid.  Soil sampling of the highest quality can be achieved with the cartridge and breech type of Shaw soil sampler.


And, while not exactly being “keyhole”, but more “doorhole”, the smart students at the University of Leeds created PostBot, with the help of Scoutek Ltd.  Postbot is an amazing device that was developed to be small enough to fit through a standard letterbox whilst also having the ability to extend to a useful height above the floor and, is agile enough to climb stairs and over other objects. With its video capability and excellent mobility we are still exploring the many applications of this exciting new robot. To see it in action, take a look at this PostBot video