New to the Archaeologist’s Tool Kit: The Drone

www.nytimes.com AUG. 13, 2014

CHEPÉN, Peru — A small remote-controlled helicopter buzzed over ancient hilltop ruins here, snapping hundreds of photographs. Below, stone walls built more than a thousand years ago by the Moche civilization gave way to a grid of adobe walls put up only recently by what officials said were land speculators.

“This site is threatened on every side,” said Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, Peru’s vice minister of cultural heritage as he piloted the drone aircraft.

Archaeologists around the world, who have long relied on the classic tools of their profession, like the trowel and the plumb bob, are now turning to the modern technology of drones to defend and explore endangered sites. And perhaps nowhere is the shift happening as swiftly as in Peru, where Dr. Castillo has created a drone air force to map, monitor and safeguard his country’s ancient treasures.

Drones mark “a before and after in archaeology,” said Dr. Castillo, who is also a prominent archaeologist and one of a dozen experts who will outline the use of drones at a conference in San Francisco next year.

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In remote northwestern New Mexico, archaeologists are using drones outfitted with thermal-imaging cameras to track the walls and passages of a 1,000-year-old Chaco Canyon settlement, now buried beneath the dirt.

In the Middle East, researchers have employed them to guard against looting.

“Aerial survey at the site is allowing for the identification of new looting pits and determinations of whether any of the looters’ holes had been revisited,” said Morag Kersel, an archaeologist from DePaul University in Chicago who is part of a team using drones in Jordan and Israel.

Peru, with its stunning concentration of archaeological riches, is suddenly fertile ground to try out this new technology. The country is becoming a research hot spot as archaeologists in the Middle East and elsewhere find their work interrupted by unrest.

But in Peru they encounter another kind of conflict. Here they struggle to protect the country’s archaeological heritage from squatters and land traffickers, who often secure property through fraud or political connections to profit from rising land values. Experts say hundreds, perhaps thousands of ancient sites are endangered by such encroachment.

The drones can address the problem, quickly and cheaply, by providing bird’s-eye views of ruins that can be converted into 3-D images and highly detailed maps.

The maps are then used to legally register the protected boundaries of sites, a kind of landmarking that can be cited in court to prevent development or to punish those who damage ruins by building anyway.  Click here to read more.