News and events

Seeing Beneath the Soil to Uncover the Past

14 September 2011

AHRC Press Release 12th September 2011

Archaeology is no longer just about digging holes. New research, undertaken by a team led by the University of Leeds as part of the co-funded Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)/ Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Science Heritage research programme, should revolutionise the effective use of ‘state-of-the-art’ remote sensing technology such that aerial detection of archaeological sites will increase dramatically without physically disturbing cultural heritage sites.

Dr Ant Beck, research fellow at Leeds and a key member of the Detection of Archaeological Residues using remote sensing Techniques (DART) project has said that ‘Our research findings are leading to an improved understanding of detection techniques and in the future our work will enable successful remote sensing surveys to take place in landscapes where at present the physical and environmental factors have been difficult to say the least. This work will transform archaeology by allowing archaeologists a better view of the archaeological residues under the soil without disturbing, and potentially damaging, sites of specific interest.”
Initial work has been taking place in Cambridgeshire this year and although it is still at an early stage, initial analysis confirms the hyperspectral images have revealed more and different information than the comparison aerial photographic image.
Hyperspectral imaging collects and processes information from across the electromagnetic spectrum. Much as the human eye sees visible light in three bands (red, green, and blue), spectral imaging divides the spectrum into many more bands, including into the invisible.

Use of wavelengths outside the visible spectrum offer immense potential for archaeological prospection. Initial research has shown that the Near Infra-red region provides the greatest contrast and allows for improved detection of archaeology. The contrast is greater in particular wavebands/lengths (for example at 1156nm which is attributable to lignin in the leaf). This is due to both spectral sensitivity (being able to see the wavelength) and spectral resolution (being able to observe a small enough part of the wavelength to capture the contrast). Dr Ant Beck said ‘This is very encouraging. Further analysis should allow us to pinpoint the links between archaeological features, environmental dynamics and crop type leading to improved detection in, what have traditionally been considered, marginal landscapes’.
Aerial prospection has already located more ‘sites’ than any other technique in the realms of archaeology but this research project will lead to more effective ways of using remote sensing and will improve the future management and curation of archaeological sites.

The challenge to date has been that existing remote sensing techniques have had to cope with the vast differences in the physical, chemical, biological and environmental processes involved in the landscape. This has meant that current detection techniques can be ineffective due to the physical and environmental factors on specific sites and landscapes.

By collaborating with a range of scientific disciplines (geotechnical, remote sensing, plant biology, computer vision) to improve the way we observe and detect buried, and therefore invisible, archaeology the research team are creating a wealth of experience and expertise which will allow archaeologists to use state-of-the-art aerial imaging sensors to detect archaeology that has never been found before.
The Director of the UK AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme, Professor May Cassar, said ‘The DART project epitomises the strides in interdisciplinary research taking place in heritage science today as a result of funding from the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme.  The excitement of this project is due to the exploration and discovery of a new world through the detection of archaeological residues using remote sensing techniques.  Without having to turn over a single spade of earth and without disturbing the archaeological record, the wealth of our archaeological past is being revealed.’

The project is Open Science: this means that, where practicable, all science objects (data, algorithms, illustrations etc.) will be made openly available for public re-use and exploitation. By openly sharing journal articles, data, code, online software tools, questions, ideas, and speculations we can open up the scientific process. This has the potential to revolutionise the research process and the way we engage with peers, policymakers and the public.

Dr Ant Beck can be contacted at
AHRC Media contact: Jake Gilmore, Communications Manager, 01793 416021;

Notes to Editors:
Presentation at the British Science Festival
Anthony Beck will be giving a presentation between 13:00 and 15:15 on Monday 12th September in the Exploring New Archaeological Worlds session.

DART: A major new investigation into what lies beneath our soils: Detection of Archaeological Residues using remote sensing Techniques (DART) is a three year, £815,000 Science and Heritage funded initiative led by the School of Computing at the University of Leeds. The Science and Heritage programme is funded jointly by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). To examine the complex problem of heritage detection DART has attracted a consortium consisting of 25 key heritage and industry organisations and academic consultants and researchers from the areas of computer vision, geophysics, remote sensing, knowledge engineering and soil science.
Enhanced knowledge of archaeological residues is important for the long-term curation and understanding of a diminishing heritage. There are certain geologies and soils which can complicate the collection and interpretation of heritage remote sensing data. In some of these ‘difficult’ areas traditional detection techniques have been unresponsive. DART will develop a deeper understanding of the contrast factors and detection dynamics within ‘difficult’ areas. This will allow the identification of appropriate sensors and conditions for feature detection. The successful detection of features in ‘difficult’ areas will provide a more complete understanding of the heritage resource which will impact on research, management and development control.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes hundreds of research awards ranging from individual fellowships to major collaborative projects as well as over 1,100 studentship awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

UK Science & Heritage Research Programme: Funded for five years by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) the Science and Heritage Programme was established in order to take forward recommendations made by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on Science and Heritage. The Programme draws on a range of disciplinary expertise and resources in order to transform the ways in which changes to our cultural heritage and its conservation are understood.  One of the aims of the programme is to develop the research community by building capacity and supporting new researchers. The programme is led by Programme Director, Professor May Cassar of UCL. Professor Cassar leads on the programmes development, external coordination and outreach as well as on extensive networking with the national and international research community including non-academic sectors. In addition she is also establishing the base line level of funding across all the research councils and developing a comprehensive map of recent and current research and training activity in heritage science.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC): EPSRC is one of the seven UK Research Councils principally funded through the Government’s science budget which is administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). EPSRC is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences and invests around £850m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.