Recently published research describes how archaeologists outfitted a customized drone with a heat-sensing camera to unearth what they believe are ceremonial pits and other features at the site of an ancient village in New Mexico.
The discovery of the structures hidden beneath layers of sediment and sagebrush is being hailed as an important step that could help archaeologists shed light on mysteries long buried by eroding desert landscapes from the American Southwest to the Middle East. The results of the research were published earlier this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Since the 1970s, archaeologists have known that aerial images of thermal infrared wavelengths of light could be a powerful tool for spotting cultural remains on the ground. But few have had access to million-dollar satellites, and helicopters and planes have their limits.
Now, technology is catching up with demand.
Archaeologists can get quality images from very specific altitudes and angles at any time of day and in a range of weather using inexpensive drones and commercially available cameras that have as much as five times the resolution of those available just a few years ago. A basic eight-rotor drone starts at about $3,700.
Jesse Casana, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas, teamed up with University of North Florida professor John Kantner last summer to test the drones in a remote area of northwestern New Mexico, south of Chaco Canyon -- once the cultural and religious center of ancient Puebloan society.
Kantner has been studying a village in the area known as Blue J. He found two households at the village's edge through test digs, but much of Blue J's secrets remain buried under eroded sandstone and wind-blown silt.
Blue J was most active close to 1,000 years ago, around the same time as Chaco. So finding structures such as kivas and great houses at the site would help solidify the theory that Chaco's influence spread far and wide. Kivas are circular, subterranean meeting places associated with ceremonial activities. Great houses were massive multistory stone buildings, some of which were oriented to solar and lunar directions and offered lines of sight between buildings to allow for communication.
Aside from dozens of anthills, the drone picked up on much larger, unnatural circular shapes that are thought to be kivas. From the surface, these structures are invisible, Kantner said. He said crews can use the drone information to plan a dig at the location to search for the archaeological remnants. (continued...)
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