Regional Archaeology Possible with Hyperspectral Satellite Imagery

by Matt Ball on March 20, 2012

Researchers at Harvard University have discovered a new means to detect ancient settlements using both hyperspectral imagery from NASA’s Terra satellite along with SRTM digital terrain models. Ancient soils called anthrosols are lighter than surrounding soil, and much richer in organic matter, which shows up in hyperspectral imagery. The digital terrain model helps measure that buildup to determine the length of settlement.

The researchers applied their method to an area of 157 square kilometers in northern Syria in what was once Mesopotamia, mapping more than 14,000 sites that span 8,000 years of human settlement. A settlement called Tell Brak is a dramatic example of the long-term buildup of decayed mud brick homes over millennia as it rises 130 feet above a flat plain.

This approach spells a whole new means of archaeological exploration over broad regions, rather than site-by-site. The researchers would like to apply this same technique to larger areas of ancient Mesopotamia, and think that it also could be used in other regions.

The research appears in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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