March 21, 2012
New Archaeology Technique Exposes 8,000 Years Of Civilization
An archaeologist from Harvard University is using computers and satellites images to search the Earth for early human settlements.
Jason Ur, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, worked with Bjoern Menze, a researcher at MIT, to develop a system that identified settlements based on factors like soil discoloration and distinctive mounding.
The used computers and satellites images to look for these clues of human habitation, and uncovered thousands of new sites that might reveal clues to the earliest human societies.
Ur examined over 14,000 square miles of satellite images of north-eastern Syria by using a computer, finding up to about 9,000 possible settlements.
"I could do this on the ground," Ur said in a press release. "But it would probably take me the rest of my life to survey an area this size."
He said using the computer can help scientists come up with an "enormous map which is methodologically very interesting."
He said this map would enable archaeologists to see the "staggering amount" of areas humans have inhabited over the last 7,000 to 8,000 years.
"What's more, anyone who comes back to this area for any future survey would already know where to go," he said in the press release. "There's no need to do this sort of initial reconnaissance to find sites. This allows you to do targeted work, so it maximizes the time we have on the ground."
Co-author Menze was able to help Ur because of his experience in identifying tumors in clinical images.
He trained software to detect the characteristic wavelengths of known anthrosols in images taken over the past 50 years.
The two used digital elevation data collected by NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (STRM) in 2000 to help them estimate the volume of the larger sites.
Ur described the new technique in a paper published in March 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Graham Philip, an archaeologist at Durham University, UK, told Nature that these types of maps could be a very promising tool in archaeology.
“This kind of innovative large-scale application is what remote sensing has been promising archaeology for some years now; it will certainly help us to focus our attention on the big picture,” Graham told the journal.
Image Caption: The SRTM was flown on an 11-day mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in February 2000.