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Listening to landscapes

How one Memorial couple is using drones to discover archaeological dig sites

A mini-special feature highlighting the research and support work Memorial’s faculty and staff members conduct during the summer months.

By Janet Harron

Research is a way of life for Memorial University couple Amanda Crompton and Marc Bolli.

An information technology manager with CREAIT, Mr. Bolli has played a key role in every dig archaeologist Dr. Crompton completed while doing her graduate work and post-doctorate. Dr. Crompton is an adjunct faculty member of the Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Now the two are taking their research partnership on the road to Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, where Dr. Crompton has been awarded a nine-month fellowship. She will spend the majority of her time in Berlin analyzing and documenting the results from the unique data she and Mr. Bolli collected from French fishing sites on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula during the past couple of summers.

From left are Marc Bolli and Amanda Crompton in the field with their drone.
Photo: Submitted

The low-elevation aerial data was collected using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and indicates changes, including “vegetation shadows”, that are typical of what anthropologists describe as “feral” landscapes: places that were once occupied but are now abandoned and overgrown by vegetation.

Think of the arresting images of Detroit’s crumbling mansions being reclaimed by nature but without the buildings.

“We think of our province as having wild landscapes but a lot of these landscapes aren’t fully natural. They have cultural origins but there aren’t buildings on them anymore,” said Dr. Crompton.

Where to dig?

Six years ago the couple became interested in UAVs as a hobby. Soon after, they recognized their potential in archaeological research.

“You can look in Google Earth and say, ‘I want to dig there,’ and then discover that the lovely verdant meadow is in fact the kind of bog that takes your shoes off,” laughed Dr. Crompton, who says that one of the questions she constantly gets asked from non-archaeologists is how she finds her sites.

Ultimately, archaeologists find sites in a variety of ways — from talking to people in communities to knowing where people from the past liked to live to recognizing subtle clues on the landscape.

The couple’s hypothesis was that lower elevation imagery might allow them to see topographical and vegetation changes that mark buried archaeological sites in greater detail than what is available in standard aerial photography.

Mr. Bolli says that the UAV — which flies at approximately 20 metres above the Earth — takes conventional pictures and turns “image tiles” into rendered models or photographic maps that a significant amount of information can be extracted from.

One of the image tiles taken by the researchers’ drone in the Great Northern Peninsula area.
Photo: Submitted

“Right around the time we were starting to apply these techniques, UAVs and the sensors that are used with them became more sophisticated and accessible to researchers without huge grants,” said Mr. Bolli. “It was a great intersection in terms of technology, price and time for this type of research.”

Dr. Crompton has been interested in the French fishery for over a decade now; it was the subject of both her PhD and her post-doctorate. Her graduate supervisor was the late Dr. Peter Pope. His work continues to inspire her own.

“Peter made reference to vegetation shadows that mark where sites were in his site notes from digs on the Great Northern Peninsula. I figured we could see those from the air if we flew over them. And that’s where it began.”

Tip of the GNP

Using the same beach for 500 years to gut fish enriches the soil of that beach. Humans make other marks on landscapes through digging into the earth to construct building foundations, changing the site’s topography. That anthropogenic soil then creates different environments for a variety of plants — the vegetation shadows originally noted by Dr. Pope.

The site they are examining this summer is just south of St. Anthony. There have been challenges: Carrying a drone through a bog and then through scrubby trees that Dr. Crompton describes as “Harry Potter-esque.” A rigorous approvals process with Transport Canada was required.

A drone in flight near St. Anthony, N.L.
Photo: Submitted

Archaeological sites near coastlines are under constant degradation due to erosion as well, so timing is also an issue.

Rotting fish and current landscapes

The couple will be back on the Northern Peninsula for one last visit this summer prior to leaving for their stint in Germany.

Dr. Crompton will spend nine months as a member of a working group focused on the bodies of animals. One of the original calls for proposals was for research on the proteins and fibres of animals and how humans interact with them.

“I saw that and thought: Let me tell you a story about rotting cod, soil enrichment and what that does to contemporary landscapes,” she laughed.

Mr. Bolli acknowledges the support of CREAIT in both allowing him to devote time to the project, in accessing instruments and allowing him a leave of absence for the 2018-19 academic year. Compute Canada has also provided computational support for the project. He plans to visit several institutes in and around the Berlin area to gain insights from experts on the computational side of remote sensing and bring those insights back to Memorial.

Ultimately what the researchers are trying to do is to establish links between anthropogenic soils that, in turn, feed distinct vegetation that can be seen from the air.

Dr. Crompton says their findings could have a great impact on how archaeologists approach potential sites in the future.

“The landscape is telling us something. We just have to listen.”

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