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Using Big Data And Satellites To Uncover Clues To Ancient Greece (Published in Forbes)

By Lauren Saulino
Posted on 10 July 2014 | 1:43 pm — 

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By Michael O’Dwyer

In blockbuster productions, Hollywood’s depiction of archaeologists stretches the truth more than a little. In reality, archaeologists are less like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Rather, they can be found living lives that are focused primarily on the academic impact of their findings. However, new technologies are pushing the boundaries of what can be discovered, bringing a new level of excitement to the field.

Using satellite imaging, with a variety of sensor types and resolutions, modern day archaeologists can now map ancient cities and estimate the best locations for new digs. By combining information gathered via satellite — high-resolution photos in the visible and near infrared spectrum—with data analysis and manual surveys, archaeologists can more easily and safely uncover those lost civilizations.

Acropolis, Athens (photos source: iStock)

Acropolis, Athens (photos source: iStock)

Using Satellites to Study Ancient Settlements

James Newhard, director of archaeology and associate professor of classics at the College of Charleston is working on several projects involving a variety of technologies that are shining new light on the ancient world.

The first involves designing a data system to study clay tablets depicting the oldest known form of Greek, from the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece. Another is the Avkat Project, a field survey in Turkey examining a historical trade route that linked Europe with the Far East. Here, satellite imaging allows experts to distinguish settlements, from the late Roman to the Ottoman eras, by linking smartphone GPS information to satellite images.

Additional analysis on the images is then performed in the lab–due to the computing resources necessary. Since raw data files from satellites are several gigabytes in size, the systems require the same kind of processing power necessary for computer games, 3D rendering or animation. “Ultimately, [the same power as used for] high-end gaming systems are a minimum requirement,” says Newhard.

Knowledge of specialized applications—such as ERMapper for image processing, the geographic information system ARCGIS, and ENVI, for geospatial and spectral data analysis—has become essential for image analysis and mapping, as well.

“You are either proficient in a range of software applications or you involve someone that is, as computer skills are necessary to analyze the data received,” says Newhard.

Newhard regards satellite imaging as a powerful tool that allows him to accelerate fieldwork, reducing the time taken for on-site surveys that would normally have taken years.

“Archaeologists are consummate borrowers and thieves,” says Newhard. “If there is something out there that will help me tease out more data, I’ll use it, as we are dealing with scraps and fragments of the past.”

However, while technology is a useful tool, the essential ability to interpret the results requires expert knowledge and academic insight. Determining the origin of a ceramic piece, for example, requires certain language skills and knowledge of the historical period.

“How is your Byzantine Greek?” asks Newhard.

Technical challenges and commercial applications

Despite the gains technology offers archaeologists, sharing, comparing and merging data from different sources remains a challenge.

One of the obstacles in handling data is that the volume involved is sometimes larger than what a desktop computer can handle comfortably, says Richard Tipper, Ph.D., executive chairman at Econometrica, a specialist in environmental data, mapping and management solutions.

“A few terabytes of data is not unusual. Where it gets complicated is when an individual file exceeds 10 GB, often causing the system to crash,” Tipper adds.

Nigel Fox, head of earth observation and climate at the National Physical Laboratory says, “One of the challenges facing the earth observation community is how to store all of this data for the future.”

Experts must also select the best satellite for their tasks, as there are variations in resolution and accuracy. On-the-ground verification is recommended.

“You have got to be able to recalibrate the [satellite] sensor post-launch and also be able to validate what it is measuring with real information on the ground to link the two things together,” says Fox.

Newhard is ultimately looking forward to future technological advances, especially in the informatics and data processing areas. “The ability to virtualize a historical landscape in a 3D environment and incorporate everything found from historical tax records to artifacts and documents will allow a clear picture of the past.”

Michael O’Dwyer is a freelance writer living in Hong Kong.  He spent over 15 years in the electronics industry, managing information technology, process improvement and supply chains. Michael writes for a variety of online portals on IT and related topics.

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