Archaeology is often a down and dirty scientific medium. Physical materials from culture’s past usually aren’t lying on the surface, waiting to be snatched up. Toiling in the dirt is a requirement.
But as technology advances, the way archaeologists document and monitor their sites is changing. Morag M. Kersel, an anthropology professor from DePaul Univ., recently presented the way drones are changing her research and monitoring methods at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The presentation was given on Feb. 14.
“At the Early Bronze Age site of Fifa, an ancient cemetery on the Dead Sea Plain in Jordan, we are using drones to document changes in an archaeological landscape over the span of five years,” according to Kersel’s abstract. “The results from the first three seasons demonstrate that UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) can provide quantifiable evidence of ongoing site damage in contexts where other remote systems, like satellite images, have previously offered insufficient data.”
According to Kersel, between 2013 and 2014, the Fifa site was looted 34 times. This was followed by a period of decline.
“An element of ongoing research is the examination of why looting has abated? Are there no more graves to loot? Have looters found more lucrative financial resources? Are the Dept. of Antiquities and (non-governmental organization) initiatives working?” asked Kersel.
Kersel is the co-director of the Follow the Pots Project, which aims to understand how archaeologists and people living near Early Bronze Age cemeteries interact with the one another and the artifacts.
“Part of what we do is the drone flyovers,” said Kersel. “But another part of this project is ethnographies with people on the ground. We treat all stakeholders with a vested interest in the site with the same intellectual curiosity, which means we interact with and learn from local populations, dealers, collectors, looters, government employees, archaeologists, museum professionals, tourists, and customs agents.”
Today, the researchers use fixed-wing drones and DJI rotary drones, which are outfitted with high-definition cameras.
Though the looting has subsided in recent years, the researchers have identified numerous untouched tombs that they said warrant protection and further study in the area.