Saturday, December 3, 2011

It's not just all about digging

The last class of the semester was rather interesting and different. Not just because it was the last class of the term, but also because Colin was away (and so was our motivation to complete the readings – oops).

However, this didn’t prevent us from having a great discussion on the use of different types of geophysical surveys in archaeology. Indeed, it turned out that Chris (who was replacing Collin) was using one of these “geoarchaeological technologies” in his research and so was able to tell us a great deal about it!

But first of all, what are these geophysical surveys and what are they used for? In our discussion, we focused more specifically on two of them : the GPR (Ground Penetrator Radar) and the GIS (Geographic Information System). Basically, the GPR works by shooting radar pulses into the ground and recording the elapsed time starting from the moment when they are sent. Hence, the GPR has the unique ability to obtain data from known depths and produce images of specific layers or horizons.(Conyers 3) On the other hand, the GIS is a tool that enables excavators to get a dynamic viewing of morphological activity by integrating, storing, editing, analyzing, sharing, and displaying geographically referenced information. (Ghilardi 2)

In view of this, it is not surprising that technologies such as GPR and GIS were primarily brought into the archaeological field as exploratory tools, enabling archaeologists to easily find sites and digging spots. However, nowadays, these technologies have progressed and aren’t (and shouldn’t) only being used as “upgraded test pits”. Indeed, things like social change, technological innovations and ecological adaptations can potentially be studied from the data collected from them (Conyer 9)

We also discussed other possible perks of these technologies. An important element that was raised was concerning ethics, a subject that we touched upon a few weeks ago. To illustrate the usefulness of the GPR and the GIS on ethical grounds, Chris brought up different examples from his own research site in Jordan. With vast temples at the ground level, how can you investigate stratigraphic layers that happen to be underneth without taking these temples down? We found that, by mapping in horizontal slices without damage, the GPR and the GIS could potentially resolve this question by opening important heritage preservation options. (Conyers 1).

However, far from being limited to resolve ethics problem or simply produce “pretty maps”, the GPR and the GIS can help the archaeologist in their pursue of discovering the past. Indeed, by gathering a lot of information together and managing important amount of data widely dispatched in space and time, these geoarchaeological technologies enable the archaeologists to see things they wouldn’t have been able to see in the first place. Thanks to this, archaeologists can then reinterpret their findings and raise new questions, enabling them to produce models about past behaviour, and test them.

Finally, we can say that archaeology is not just about digging; it is also about getting a large picture of the environment in which people lived. In this sense, digging 1 x 1 meter units can’t always give us this a picture ; this is where geophysical surveys come into play.

This blog post concludes the 2011 archaeological field studies class! If any future student read this, good luck on excavating the rest of Magic’s remains, and, possibly, finding new animals!

Works cited :

Conyers, L.B., 2010. Ground-penetrating radar for anthropological research. Antiquity 84, 175- 184.

Ghilardi, M., Desruelles, S., 2009. Geoarchaeology: where human, social and earth sciences meet with technology. S.A.P.I.EN.S 2009 (2.2).