How archaeologists continued digging from home during lockdown

Equipped with airborne survey data, a team of volunteers in the U.K. analysed thousands of images derived from LiDAR data

June 05, 2020 08:19 pm | Updated 08:19 pm IST - Chennai

What lies beneath: A probable Iron Age or Roman enclosed settlement (red arrows) and associated field system (blue arrows) revealed by LiDAR.

What lies beneath: A probable Iron Age or Roman enclosed settlement (red arrows) and associated field system (blue arrows) revealed by LiDAR.

The coronavirus pandemic has stopped archaeologists from going to dig at sites, but that did not stop a U.K.-based team from continuing their research. Equipped with airborne survey data, a team of volunteers, locked down in their homes, sat and analysed thousands of images derived from Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data. In this method, commonly used by geologists and surveyors to make high-resolution maps, laser light is used to survey a site and its reflection is measured with a sensor. The study team was led by Dr. Chris Smart from the University of Exeter.

According to a release from the university, the team to date has found parts of two Roman roads, and around 30 prehistoric or Roman large embanked settlement enclosures. They were also able to locate around 20 prehistoric burial mounds, remains of hundreds of medieval farms, and a few quarries.

“The images are usually taken during aerial surveys and the maps are very detailed. One can remove the vegetation and buildings from the map and take a closer look at the land surfaces,” Dr. Smart told The Hindu . “The images are derived from two sources of data — a research project called Tellus South West Project and also the U.K. Environment Agency. The data is open access and the images that are computed from the data are copyright of the University of Exeter.”

‘Lockdown Landscapes’

The team is currently studying the Tamar Valley, a rich archaeological landscape with many sites belonging to the Iron Age and Roman era. “Our project is excavating a large Roman fort at a place called Calstock,” added Dr. Smart. The team has planned to extend the study to other areas like Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor, Plymouth and Barnstaple — about 4,000 sq. km. in all.

“I knew there would be enthusiasm within our volunteer group to continue working during lockdown — one even suggested temporarily re-branding our project ‘Lockdown Landscapes’,” Dr. Smart added in the release.

One regular project volunteer, Fran Sperring, said in the release: “Searching for previously unknown archaeological sites — and helping to identify places for possible future study — has been not only gratifying but engrossing. Although it’s a fairly steep learning curve for me — being a relative novice to the subject — I am enjoying every minute. Archaeology from the warm, dry comfort of your living room — what could be better?”

LiDAR in India

Prof. Ritvik Balvally from the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, added that the technology had immense potential for India. “Though LiDAR has been used for agriculture and geology-related applications, our country has still not used it in archaeology to the best of my knowledge. The problem is that the data needs to be bought and processed by experts. Also, they might be expensive.”

He added that he would like to use LiDAR to explore the Saurashtra temple city named Ghumli, which was the capital of the Saindhava empire. He explained that the site was located in Barda hills and there were many temples atop it that could be explored.

“LiDAR will also help in understanding domestic architecture, and defensive architecture like moats and fortifications in the area. We can even look at the hydrology and water management systems in greater detail, all of which is probably under dense vegetation. Remote sensing techniques such as LiDAR would be time saving and most useful in this regard,” he added.

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