Archaeologist uses computers and satellite images to search for early human settlements

Mar 19, 2012

A Harvard archaeologist has dramatically simplified the process of finding early human settlements by using computers to scour satellite images for the tell-tale clues of human habitation, and in the process uncovered thousands of new sites that might reveal clues to the earliest complex human societies.

As described in a paper published March 19 in the , Jason Ur, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, worked with Bjoern Menze, a research affiliate in MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to develop a system that identified settlements based on a series of factors – including soil discolorations and the distinctive mounding that results from the collapse of mud-brick settlements.

Armed with that profile, Ur used a computer to examine of a 23,000 square-kilometer area of north-eastern Syria, and turned up approximately 9,000 possible settlements, an increase of "at least an order of magnitude" over what had previously been identified.

"I could do this on the ground," Ur said, of the results of the computer-aided survey. "But it would probably take me the rest of my life to survey an area this size. With these computer science techniques, however, we can immediately come up with an enormous map which is methodologically very interesting, but which also shows the staggering amount of human occupation over the last 7,000 or 8,000 years.

"What's more, anyone who comes back to this area for any future survey would already know where to go," he continued. "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."

Explore further: Ancient clay seals may shed light on biblical era

More information: “Mapping patterns of long-term settlement in Northern Mesopotamia at large scale,” by Bjoern H. Menze and Jason A. Ur, PNAS.

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User comments : 7

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Ophelia
1.1 / 5 (7) Mar 19, 2012
Really? So this guy is using satellite data to identify something on the ground? How original. Isn't that why LandSat was launched - what - 30 or 40 years ago? Sort of like that special about the archaeologist using satellite data to identify possible Egyptian sites, isn't it?

Find something original to write about.
Unknown
5 / 5 (5) Mar 19, 2012
Really? So this guy is using satellite data to identify something on the ground? How original. Isn't that why LandSat was launched - what - 30 or 40 years ago? Sort of like that special about the archaeologist using satellite data to identify possible Egyptian sites, isn't it?

Find something original to write about.


I disagree. The fact that the technology to do this has existed for awhile does not make this story uninteresting. It's a neat approach! And it sounds like it's got the potential to rapidly turn up a lot of interesting data about early human settlements and migration patterns.
Hev
4 / 5 (2) Mar 19, 2012
Archaeologists have been using photos of aerial views of the landscape to find the traces of ancient buildings etc. ever since it was possible to have aerial view photography. Interpreting these photos was part of the training for being an archaeologist. Satellite views just add to that. Some recent discoveries have come to light through Google Earth. So not sure what is new in that story.
TomD
5 / 5 (4) Mar 19, 2012
Really? So this guy is using satellite data to identify something on the ground? How original. Isn't that why LandSat was launched - what - 30 or 40 years ago? Sort of like that special about the archaeologist using satellite data to identify possible Egyptian sites, isn't it?

Find something original to write about.


Try reading the item again. It is not that using satellite imagery is new, but rather "a system that identified settlements based on a series of factors", that "turned up approximately 9,000 possible settlements" - a great many of which were previously unknown.
Ophelia
1 / 5 (3) Mar 20, 2012
Try reading the item again. It is not that using satellite imagery is new, but rather "a system that identified settlements based on a series of factors", that "turned up approximately 9,000 possible settlements" - a great many of which were previously unknown.


Really? Identifying something with "factors" is new? You don't suppose there have been programs by the car load written in the past to identify things such as mineral resources, etc., based upon "factors" applied to satellite imagery?

This article is devoid of any meaningful information and shouldn't have been posted. If you want some more information - facts that might tell you why this might be new - check out the article at http://news.disco...=rssnws1 .

This article was so lacking in detail as to amount to a waste of time reading it.
Birger
not rated yet Mar 20, 2012
An archaeologist named Ur: Nominative determinism :)
Roder
not rated yet Apr 07, 2012
This is not new insofar as archaeologists have been using aerial imagery for a long time. It is new insofar as the researchers have developed a computational method for identifying settlements, rather than hand (or eye) examining each image. This is one of several new innovations in the application for remotely sensed data to cultural heritage. The PNAS paper is really interesting.

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