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Oct 22, 2005

Surveying Ancient Cities Without Digging

The Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes (CAMEL) is taking a radically new approach to archaeological research, attempting to survey ancient sites while disturbing them as little as possible. Traditionally, archaeologists have relied on the destructive method of removing buried artifacts and examining them. CAMEL's method however, organizes maps, aerial photography, satellite images and other data into one place, allowing archaeologists to see how ancient trade routes developed and to prepare simulations of how people may have interacted, given the limitations of their space, the availability of resources and the organization of their cities. The system begins with aerial images from the 1950s and 1960s. The older photographs are valuable because they depict mounds and other features. While these mounds may be rich in ancient material, modern day farming and irrigation have leveled many of them making it impossible to locate them. That's why the old aerial images are combined with new satellite images from NASA, Digital Globe and others, so researchers can better determine where these potentially valuable sites are located.

This new nondestructive method is being used at Kerkenes Dag in central Turkey (pictured above). The University of Chicago Chronicle describes the work of Scott Branting there:

"By employing a range of observational and remote sensing techniques across the entire area of the city, we have been able to fill in the blank spaces on an earlier map made by the Oriental Institute,"” Branting said. The work, which includes the techniques used at CAMEL to map accurately a site with photographs, provided archaeologists a chance to work with a high degree of precision once digging began. Currently, another season of excavation is underway.

"Since so much can be seen on the surface at Kerkenes Dag, this has proved to be a very effective technique,"” Branting said.

Global Positioning System technology has allowed scholars to record the minute topography of the entire ground surface within the site. "“Never before in archaeology has this technique been undertaken on such a grand scale. The terrain model is the basis for ongoing work to produce a virtual reconstruction of the entire city, neighborhood by neighborhood, building by building,"” he said.

By using the techniques, the team was able to locate the gateway of the palace complex and find the first fragmentary inscriptions and reliefs to be recovered at the site. They have been able to date the site to the mid- to late-seventh century through the mid-sixth century B.C.