Uncovering Treasures from Afar Boston University Archaeologists Use Remote-Sensing to Locate Prehistoric Artifacts in Greece

By Laurie Ann Peach, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 19, 1992 | Go to article overview

Uncovering Treasures from Afar Boston University Archaeologists Use Remote-Sensing to Locate Prehistoric Artifacts in Greece


Laurie Ann Peach, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FROM a flint hand axe dating back to the early Ice Age to Oman's lost city of frankincense (see story Page 13), archaeologists are finding ancient artifacts by studying pictures of the earth taken from space. Using remote-sensing techniques to aid their research, scientists have uncovered treasures hidden underground for thousands of years.

"Remote-sensing is just seeing from afar," says James Wiseman, chairman of the Boston University (BU) Department of Archaeology, who employed this technology in a project near Preveza, Greece.

"It is an instrument that we use to discover things without having to see or touch them," says Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at BU. The technique is useful in archaeology, he says, because it provides detail over a large area and at great depth. A remote sensor on a satellite can take images from 570 miles above the earth. Because the sensor is actually a multispectral camera that uses the electromagnetic spectrum (energy waves) to detect objects, artifacts buried as deep as 30 feet below the surface can be found. The electromagnetic spectrum includes energy waves from infrared, visible or ultraviolet light, X-rays, and radio waves.

"Images taken through remote-sensing show evidence of previous human habitats by depicting patterns of civilization such as the remains of cemeteries, abandoned roads, or dry river beds" that are presently covered with sand, soil, or water, says Dr. El-Baz. "The electric current given off picks up anything that is different from the existing soils."

Smaller scale remote-sensing instruments suspended from aircraft, blimps, or even a scientist's hand can be used to zoom in on details.

Dr. Wiseman's project makes use of all the types of remote-sensing instruments. The project covers 400 square kilometers (154 miles) of terrain, from the Ambracian Gulf to the Adriatic coast and a time period of several thousand years.

"We're looking at piecing together the cultural history of the ancient city of Nikopolis in Epirus, Greece, and explaining the changing relationships, from prehistoric through medieval times, between the people that lived there and the land they inhabited," Wiseman says.

"Using remote-sensing," he continues, "We can research a project the size of ours and have results within three to five years. Before, it would take three generations of archaeologists to walk the area, make observations, dig a little here or there, and hope that they found something.

Last summer, a member of Wiseman's group, Curtis Runnels, uncovered an Acheulean hand axe. This axe, named after the French city of St. Acheul where the first one was found, is evidence that ancestors of modern humans inhabited the Greek peninsula during the Lower Palaeolithic period of the early Ice Age, some 200,000 to 500,000 years ago.

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