Spotting Ancient Sites, from Space

For decades, working as an archaeologist meant being, as Jason Ur, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, puts it, “the guy with the muddy boots.”

A comparison of the results of the ASTER classification (left) and the distribution of surface artifacts at Tell Brak, northeastern Syria. The analyses show a remarkably close correspondence. (Credit: Images courtesy of Bjoern Menze and Jason Ur)

Ur and researchers like him may soon be able to avoid some of that mud, however, thanks to a system he developed that uses computers to scour satellite images for telltale clues of human habitation. Already, he said, the system has uncovered thousands of potential ancient settlements that might reveal clues to the earliest complex human societies.

As described in a paper published March 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ur worked with Bjoern Menze, a research affiliate in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, to create software that uses a series of factors — including soil discolorations and the distinctive mounding that results from the collapse of mud-brick homes — to identify ancient settlements.

Armed with that profile, Ur examined satellite images of a 23,000-square-kilometer area of northeastern Syria, and turned up approximately 9,000 possible settlements, an increase of “at least an order of magnitude” over what had previously been identified.

“I could do this on the ground,” Ur said, of the results of the computer-aided survey. “But it would probably take me the rest of my life to study an area this size. With these computer science techniques, however, we can immediately come up with an enormous map which is methodologically very interesting, but which also shows the staggering amount of human occupation over the last 7,000 or 8,000 years.

“Working in this area is particularly important,” Ur added, “because these parts of northern Iraq and northeast Syria were home to some of the earliest complex societies in the world. We are extremely interested in these places because they can help us answer questions about the origins of urbanism, settlement patterns and demographic shifts, and how people exploited their landscape.”

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