Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as “drones,” have become increasingly common in recent years as the technology behind them has developed. Some uses are controversial, such as military applications and uses that might violate privacy expectations or be dangerous to other aircraft, but other uses are more benign and can potentially open up new frontiers.
In archaeology, UAVs are increasingly being used for aerial photography and remote sensing in many places around the world. These are types of research that have been established for decades, but that until recently were prohibitively expensive for most archaeologists since they required both expensive camera equipment and the use of airplanes or helicopters. With the development of both lighter, less expensive cameras and UAVs that are robust enough to carry them, this type of research is now much more practical.
A recent paper by a team of researchers including Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas and John Kantner of the University of North Florida reported on research using a UAV to take infrared thermal imagery, or aerial thermography, as well as color photography, of sites in the Blue J community south of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. (Casana has the paper posted on his Academia.edu page.) Kantner has been studying Blue J and the surrounding area for several years and has come up with some interesting results.
Blue J is in an area at the southern edge of the San Juan Basin that is thick with Chacoan outlier communities, most of which date to fairly early in the Chacoan era and many of which were apparently abandoned while the Chaco system was flourishing. Casamero Pueblo is one site very close to Blue J where a great house has been excavated and is open to public visitation. These communities typically have one or more great houses and great kivas, and in fact it is unusually common for communities here to have multiple great houses compared to other Chacoan outlier communities. At Blue J, however, Kantner has so far not identified any great houses or great kivas. As he says on his website:
Turquoise, marine shell, jet, azurite, malachite, and other exotic materials attest to the success of Blue J’s inhabitants. Oddly, however, what was originally thought to be a great house turned out to be a normal residential structure, making Blue J the only community for miles around without Chacoan architectural influence.
Now, part of what’s going on here may have to do more with how archaeologists define “great house” than with anything about Blue J specifically. The function of the monumental buildings that have been given this label remains a point of active contention among scholars, with some arguing that they were primarily residential, perhaps housing community elites or religious leaders, and others arguing that they were non-residential public architecture, perhaps with ritual significance as sites of pilgrimage and/or communal feasting. Kantner belongs to the latter camp, so finding “normal” residential features at a suspected great house removes it from consideration as such, whereas another archaeologist might interpret such findings differently. (It’s worth noting that many if not most excavated “great houses” have showed at least some evidence for residential use, and in some cases they have not been noticeably different from other residential structures in a community except in size and location.)
The focus of the recent study was on demonstrating the potential for using UAVs to do fast, inexpensive survey of large sites and to identify buried features. Blue J is well suited for this on both counts. It is located at the foot of a steep cliff, which has resulted in many sites in the community being covered with substantial deposits of sediment carried by water and wind, making them difficult to identify on the surface. It is also fairly large for a Chacoan outlier community, with over 50 residential sites identified through previous surveys, which makes a fast method of survey over a large area an attractive proposition.
The study consisted of doing several flights with a UAV over the site, at different times of day and night, primarily with the infrared thermal camera to capture differences in temperature that are expected to be present between archaeological features and the dry desert soil. The original intent was to do some of the flights in the hottest part of the afternoon, but high winds ended up making this impossible. The results were nevertheless impressive: one site that had been previously identified through survey and limited excavation showed up clearly in the imagery, with buried walls visible in some of the images. Several other sites that had been identified but not excavated showed up as well, with buried walls again visible. A large circle showing a possible great kiva is particularly interesting given that no great kiva has yet been identified from surface survey.
Obviously further work is necessary to confirm some of the results from the imaging, but this is a very successful demonstration of the potential for this technology to improve survey and site identification so that further research can be focused on the most promising locations for sites. Other sensing techniques such as ground-penetrating radar have also been tried in the Southwest, but they are much slower and can be thrown off by some characteristics of the desert environment. Aerial thermography using UAVs offers another option that seems to have a lot of potential and it will be interesting to see how it is used as the technology continues to advance.
Casana, J., Kantner, J., Wiewel, A., & Cothren, J. (2014). Archaeological aerial thermography: a case study at the Chaco-era Blue J community, New Mexico Journal of Archaeological Science, 45, 207-219 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2014.02.015