Ground-Penetrating Radar: An Introduction for Archaeologists

By Kvamme, Kenneth L. | Plains Anthropologist, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Ground-Penetrating Radar: An Introduction for Archaeologists


Kvamme, Kenneth L., Plains Anthropologist


Ground-Penetrating Radar: An Introduction for Archaeologists. By LAWRENCE B. CONYERS AND DEAN GOODMAN. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, California. 1997. 232 pp., 58 figures, 8 plates, 6 tables, bibliography. $54 (cloth, ISBN 0-7619-8927-7), $26.95 (paper, ISBN 0-- 7619-8928-5).

The benefits of geophysical prospecting methods to North American archaeology are potentially enormous. Recent advances in instrumentation have improved sensitivity and speed of data collection, while new software handling of the data coupled with computer graphic displays have particularly promoted their use. It is now possible to generate subsurface imagery that actually looks like the buried archaeology, where one can see the foundation of a buried house, for example, much like viewing an x-ray image. The earliest geophysical work in archaeology was performed in North America in the 1930s, and in the Great Plains, John Weymouth (University of Nebraska), for example, was advancing archaeological magnetometry during the 1970s. Since its inception it is estimated that perhaps 1,500 archaeo-geophysical studies have been carried out in the continent.

Although this background seems noteworthy we find that in England alone about 1,200 geophysical projects are conducted at archaeological sites each year, with similar high levels of practice elsewhere in Europe and Japan. Some European countries actually require geophysical surveys by law as an initial step in the site investigation process, there are relatively large corps of practitioners, journals and learned societies are devoted to the topic, and a popular television show even exists in the United Kingdom (the Time Team, now in its seventh season) that pursues archaeological geophysicists across sites, verifying their findings through excavation! In contrast, knowledge and use of these methods among archaeologists in North America is low. Ground Penetrating Radar: An Introduction for Archaeologists is therefore a welcome addition to the literature, because it is written by North Americans and includes case studies from this continent (as well as several from Japan). Moreover, its focus on ground-penetrating radar (GPR) sets this volume off as distinctively North American in character because this relatively new technology is little used in European practice and North America is home to the technology's principal manufacturers and most of its advances.

Ground Penetrating Radar: An Introduction for Archaeologists is organized in nine chapters. The introductory chapter tells us why we would want to use GPR and summarizes some of its benefits to archaeological practice. It also reviews the history of the technology, if somewhat briefly. Chapter 2, focusing on the GPR method, is excellent. It clearly describes the theory behind GPR, its parameters and outcomes, and does so at an easy-to-understand, non-technical level. Even the novice will come away with real understanding of the technology. Chapter 3, on GPR equipment and data gathering, is also good, giving a review of typical forms of hardware available and enough information about field methods that the beginner can gain some appreciation of how a GPR survey might be carried out.

Anyone who works even a little with GPR soon realizes that the collection of data in the field may be the easy part - once a few parameters are set, data gathering becomes mundane. More difficult is the processing, analysis, portrayal, and interpretation of the data, a task that is not trivial given the typically large data volumes obtained in GPR surveys (e.g., I commonly obtain about 51,000 measurements/ml compared to far fewer with other geophysical techniques: 8-16/ml for magnetometry and 1-4/mz for electrical resistivity or soil conductivity). Chapter 4, entitled "PostAcquisition Data Processing," and Chapter 8, "Amplitude Analysis in GPR Studies," attempt to educate us about these tasks. The former, only six pages long (with figures), is far too brief and gives only a cursory review of four processing methods.

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