Urban archaeology: A New remote-sensing system for study of ancient urban patterns by Jason Ur

Landscape pasts usually provide information for landscape presents and futures, precisely, on the way we lived in the past, on ancient urban and landscape features.
Jason Ur, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard, shared to The Harvard Gazette his recent project, namely a new remote-sensing system he developed, March 23rd, 2012. This system, he says, uses computers to scour satellite images for telltale clues of human habitation.
For this project, he collaborated with Bjoern Menze, a research affiliate in MIT's Computer Science an Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

This new system, of course, is primarily created for archaeoligsts and landscape archaeologists. This nevertheless can be very useful for planners and architects, in particular those who have a strong interest in past urban patterns.

As the image below shows, this new software utilizes soil discolorations and the distinctive mounding resulting from the collapse of mud-brick homes, among others factors to identiy ancient settlements.
Images courtesy of Bjoern Menze and Jason Ur
—> A comparison of the results of the ASTER classification (left) and the distribution of surface
artifacts at Tell Brak, northeasern Syria. The analyses show a remarkably close correspondence.
"With these computer science techniques, (…), we can immediately come up qith 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."
Originally appeared on The Harvard Gazette.
As Ur states this remote-sensing tool will facilitate tje excavation of ancient settlements, spatial and demographic aspects of the initial urban growth in regions like the Mesopotamia, to name only one.
Working in this area is particularly important, 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."
This innovative system sounds passionate. It has the benefit of far newer images, produced by NASA's ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) satellite… in color. This will change from the system Ur used to utilize, a paintstaking system that was reliant upon Ur's subjectivity and on images in black and white.
The Landscape of Tell Brak — December 1967 CORONA satellite photograph.
Originally appeared on Jason Ur.
—> "Most hollow ways, however, simply faded out 3-5km from sites. These routes led not to other settlements but were used by farmers, shepherds, and their flocks to move from the settlements out into the fields and the pastures beyond them. The intensively exploited landscape of the late Early Bronze Age survives vividly in CORONA photographs." Jason Ur.

The Innovation of this project has been to take advantage of satellite imagery that sees beyond what the human eye can see. ASTER can see red and green, but it can also detect the near-infrared and a number of subsequent wavelengths. (…) In addition, ASTER images ae born digital. That allows us to develop a profile based on places that we knw are archaeological sites, then use software to identify places that have similar signatures.
Tell Brak Settlement. Settlement in the LC 2 period (Ca. 4200-3800 BC).
Originally appeared on Jason Ur.

I am particularely interested in ancient urban patterns… as these provide a better understanding and information on the evolution of cities and infrastructures.
Assyrian cities — detail. Google Earth. © Jason Ur.

I was immediately intrigued by this new remote-sensing tool that will help not only archaeologists and landscape archaeologists but also urban explorers who are excavating latent spaces, in particular hazardous spaces generated by industrial economies of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Topography of Ultra Qalasi (Sassanian Cities) — Google Earth. © Jason Ur.

As known, tomorrow's cities need to perform better than today's and past's. In this context, study of ancient urban pattern will help us to understand: first, how people lived; second, which characteristics these urban and landscape patterns had?; third, how and why ancient urban environment disappeared, and so forth. In short, what can we learn from past urban and landscape patterns? We are a narrative species who learns a lot from the past to improve technology, to create new techniques and ways to reengineer our urban environments in the new era. In this context, the study of past urban patterns, of decaying landscapes, of ruins can inform how to adapt to coming challenges.

In conclusion, this will be a powerful tool but as Jason Ur says:
This process can tell us what is likely to be an archaeological site, but what it cannot tell us is when that site was occupied by humans. For that, we have to visit these places and find artifacts that allow us to date the site. The satellite cannot do that for us.

Source: The Harvard Gazette

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