Researchers use UAS to answer questions at ancient burial sites

By Patrick C. Miller | February 18, 2016

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are becoming powerful tools in the hands of archaeologists who document excavations, map landscapes and identify buried features, according to Morag Kersel, assistant professor of anthropology at DePaul University in Chicago.

In addition, she said UAS have proven invaluable in monitoring the looting of ancient burial sites. In a recent presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Kersel outlined how UAS have been used at an early Bronze Age Cemetery near Fifa, Jordan.

“We have permission from the government of Jordan and from the Department of Antiquities to do this,” she said. “We’re going to test this as the model for other places that allow drones. This doesn’t work everywhere and we’re not suggesting that this is a replacement for satellite imagery. This is just another technology that could be used.”

Kersel, whose research focuses on trade and antiquities, will be returning to Fifa next month to conduct additional studies of the Dead Sea burial site. Austin (Chad) Hill, a research scientist at the University of Connecticut, is the project’s UAS pilot.

Hill uses a small fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with a Canon camera inside the belly and a GoPro mounted on the front, as well as a DJI rotary wing quadcopter.

While watching Hill fly a UAV to map an archeological site in Israel, Kersel started thinking about how UAVs could be used to provide better quality, higher resolution imagery than what’s usually available from satellites. She also wanted to focus on specific locations.

“I wondered if we could use drones at lower levels, exactly where we want them to go and in patterns we want them to fly to map and document the extent of the site,” she recalled. “I also wanted to take a look at looting and changes over time.”

The Fifa site in Jordan was best suited for the research. Kersel said the Jordanian government was very supportive of using UAS for the project.

“We got great results after our first year in 2013 and even better results in 2014 and 2015. It’s just been a really good fit,” Kersel said of how UAS has been applied to archaeological studies.

Kersel said that using UAS in her field studies has worked even better than anticipated. In fact, she said UAS helped solve a mystery of why looters appeared to be returning to dig in graves that had already been looted.

“What we found was that they were revisiting the old holes, but instead of going to a new one, they were digging sideways into the adjacent grave because the graves often share a wall,” Kersel explained. “Instead of removing the really heavy capstone, they were just digging sideways.”

It was the high-resolution imagery from UAS that enabled Kersel and her team to solve the mystery.

“That’s the kind of detail we don’t see from satellite imagery, but we do when we can zoom in really closely with the higher resolution that we get from the drone imagery,” she said.

Kersel points out that the focus of her research isn’t on the use of drones, but takes a holistic approach that includes conducting ethnographies with the people who interact with the landscape.

“That’s talking to looters, collectors, dealers, government people and others,” she said. “It’s putting together all of the data that gives us a more comprehensive picture of the site which helps us better define how we’re going to use the drones. It’s not just about documenting the looting, but also other anthropogenic and manmade interactions with the site—either positive or negative.”


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