Space Age Digs

Professor Fred Cooper and his team of students use the newest technology to unearth the past. Continue reading…

  • 1. Block moving and preliminary heroon reconstruction, Ancient Messene, 2002

  • 2 Heroon reconstruction, Ancient Messene, 2007

  • 3. Landsat satellite image with topographic and site overlay of Ancient Mesene area.

  • 4. Podium and heroon reconstruction, Ancient Messene, 2007

  • 5. Preliminary heroon reconstruction and student field crew, Ancient Messene, 2002

  • 6. Quickbird satellite image of the site of Ancient Messene

  • 7. Sara Franck's ancient quarry project - quarried stone on Mount Ithome near Ancient Messene, 2007

  • 8. Hellenistic site of Lykosoura - one of the sites used in Franck's dissertation

  • 9. From Franck's ancient quarry project - quarries of Marathi on Paros

  • 10. Part of Franck's ancient quarry project - quarried stone on Mount Ithome near Ancient Messene, 2006

Who could have guessed that one of the best ways to find what lies underground is to go beyond the stratosphere?

Since 1990, Professor Frederick Cooper has been using Geographic Information System (GIS) and Landsat digital images to survey vernacular architecture in an area of the western Peloponnese known as the Morea. Occupied by Crusaders (called "Franks" by the Greeks) from about 1205 to the 1440s, the Morea is a site rich with churches, large fortifications, and domestic architecture in unfortified towns. Although some parts of these relatively recent ruins have remained visible, through the 1980s many were found by accident, as archaeologists searched for ancient buildings.

As graduate student Sara Franck describes it, the Landsat satellites "see" reflected sunlight not only in the visible range, but also outside it in other wavelengths. By evaluating the spectral response of particular types of vegetation, it is possible to develop a distinctive spectral signature from near- and mid-infrared bands of the image that identify the presence of stone fortifications and citadel walls. In other words, the satellite can detect building-shaped changes in the topography of an area that are invisible to the naked eye. When these images are combined with GIS technologies, Professor Cooper and his team can accurately map out the sites of their explorations.

With former graduate student Todd Brenningmeyer, Cooper developed a GIS database system that aids in matching fresco fragments. This technology was applied to a "real world" situation when the Minneapolis police department asked Cooper to assist with a murder case that required the reconstruction of a shattered pane of glass; several students, including Franck, reconstructed the glass using the GIS program to match the shards of glass based on characteristics such as break type and glass coat.

Archaeology hasn't completely gone over to satellites and GIS; there is still plenty of work to be done using good old-fashioned digging and hoisting. Take, for instance, the site of an ancient heroon (commemorative building for a hero) located in Ancient Messene, Greece. The building had been knocked down in antiquity and lay covered by two millennia of dirt and vegetation. To unearth the heroon, Cooper, undergraduate student Andrew Boos, and Franck--who eventually supervised the block removal--had to identify the stones by type and orientation, pull them out of the ground with straps, and move them into a block field where they could be assessed before reconstruction.

Next, Cooper created a plan for reconstructing the heroon. Once they identified badly damaged blocks and determined how many were missing, they had new stones quarried locally using a plan drawing by Franck. Reconstruction began in 2005.

This experience sparked a question in Franck: They were using modern quarries to replace the ancient stone, but where were the ancient quarries located? With the support of a Graduate Research Partnership Program grant from the University of Minnesota, Franck and Cooper developed a project to locate ancient quarries near Ancient Messene using--you guessed it--GIS. Using a satellite image, signatures for known quarries were used to generate an output indicating areas where similar stone might be located. Franck then collected additional information at the sites and explored these areas to verify quarry locations. She presented the project at a conference for computer applications in archaeology in spring 2007.

Spending summers working with Cooper has given students Boos, Brenningmeyer, and Franck unparalleled experiences that will contribute to the future of archaeology. "The combination of art history, archaeology, and technology is important and exciting for us and really expands future development within the field," says Franck. "And personally, I've developed my analytical skills in architectural style and archaeological finds in ways that never could have happened through just classroom study."

What is...?
The Landsat Program is a series of Earth-observing satellite missions jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Since 1972, Landsat satellites have collected information about Earth from space. This science, known as remote sensing, has matured with the Landsat Program. Landsat satellites have taken specialized digital photographs of Earth's continents and surrounding coastal regions for over three decades, enabling people to study many aspects of our planet and to evaluate the dynamic changes caused by both natural processes and human practices. (Source:

A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced materials. GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts. (Source:



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This page contains a single entry by cla published on December 22, 2008 2:38 PM.

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