Drones unearth more details about Chaco culture

April 22, 2014 by Susan Montoya Bryan

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.

"Really within a few hours we were able to survey this area that took me a long time, years of what we call ground reconnaissance and excavation to see what's below the surface," he said. "So this is great for quickly and pretty cheaply being able to find sites."

There already is talk about using the drones in other dry environments such as Saudi Arabia and Cyprus, where the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures would be great enough to allow the heat signatures of buried stone structures or other features to pop up on the thermal images.

Some researchers also have suggested using drone technology to search for a lost Spanish fort in Georgia and along the banks of Florida's St. Johns River, Kantner said.

Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama in Birmingham who was not involved in the New Mexico research, said she's excited about the potential for using the technology in her work in Egypt. She said drones outfitted with sensors can hone in on what's most important in archaeology—the landscape and features that are buried beneath the ground.

"We think we know a site, and we've been working there for a long time, and lo and behold, new technologies show us things we weren't even expecting," Parcak said. "The great thing about remote sensing is it really gives you a new set of eyes in the sky to see what is otherwise invisible."

The drones have their limits. For example, flights usually are less than 15 minutes depending on battery power and camera weight, and the eight-rotor mini copters have been known to stop and come crashing to the ground.

There also are questions about whether federal regulators will toughen rules governing drone flights.

Kantner said as drones become more reliable, their ability to survey vast areas quickly will become even more important. He pointed to potential threats of oil and gas development and coal and uranium mining throughout the Chaco region.

"There are resources that we obviously need for our nation's self-sufficiency, but on the other hand, we don't want to give away our cultural patrimony by losing these archaeology sites," he said.

Explore further: Image: Grand Canyon geology lessons on view

Related Stories

Image: Grand Canyon geology lessons on view

April 17, 2014

The Grand Canyon in northern Arizona is a favorite for astronauts shooting photos from the International Space Station, as well as one of the best-known tourist attractions in the world. The steep walls of the Colorado River ...

In Brief: Social inequality among Pueblo Indians

November 9, 2010

A study in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that social hierarchies may have emerged within Southwestern Native American society as early as the 9th century.

New Mexican skies protected with Dark Sky Park designation

September 2, 2013

The 34,000-acre Chaco Culture National Historical Park is home to many ancient wonders including the remains of a civilization that thrived over 1,000 years ago. The park, which has been protecting its archaeological riches ...

Amazon's Bezos outlines grocery, drone plans

April 10, 2014

CEO Jeff Bezos' annual letter to shareholders offers a glimpse into Amazon's internal workings and what it is aiming for in the future, including expanded same-day grocery delivery and drone delivery.

Recommended for you

New paper answers causation conundrum

November 17, 2017

In a new paper published in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, SFI Professor Jessica Flack offers a practical answer to one of the most significant, and most confused questions in evolutionary ...

Chance discovery of forgotten 1960s 'preprint' experiment

November 16, 2017

For years, scientists have complained that it can take months or even years for a scientific discovery to be published, because of the slowness of peer review. To cut through this problem, researchers in physics and mathematics ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.