Universiteit Leiden

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Research programme

IIAFSARS - Identification of irregular archaeological features in northern South America forest using remote sensing methods

Researchers using remote sensing technologies have characterized pre-Columbian regularly-shaped earthworks in forests in Central America and the Amazon. In tropical forested mountains in South America, two challenges arise when identifying archaeological sites through remote sensing. Firstly, sites lack the orthogonal patterns and clustering found in Central America and Central Andes. Instead, sites exhibit irregular shapes and low clustering. Secondly, the effectiveness of current remote sensing in detecting irregularly-shaped and sparsely clustered archaeological features remains unknown. This interdisciplinary project addresses these two issues, collaborating at the crossroads of archaeology and remote sensing through a proof-of-concept for identifying irregular archaeological features beneath the dense tropical forested mountains of South America, enabling the remote detection of features beyond the more readily identifiable orthogonal-shaped earthworks and structures.

2024 - 2025
Sebastian Fajardo Bernal

TU Delft / Erasmus University Rotterdam / Universidad del Magdalena - Santa Marta

The project will collect Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and satellite remote sensing data to identify archaeological contexts with irregular shapes using feature extraction algorithms. The study area is located in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This region contains over 820 pre-Columbian structures, including terraces, burials, retaining walls, paths, and staircases. We will also analyze nearby botanical species for patterns near archaeological sites.

Dr. Sebastian Fajardo, who has unique past expertise in combining computer sciences techniques, including machine learning, to archeological challenges, will lead data acquisition, processing, analysis, and results dissemination. Master’s students, from either CEG, FA, UNIMAG, or LIACS, will receive training in this research, focusing on data comparison and geometric feature extraction algorithms.

Societal impact/(inter)national importance of the proposed plan

Pre-Columbian societies in northwestern South America developed technologies without the same intervention of natural environments and degrees of social inequality observed elsewhere in the ancient world. Modern agriculture, infrastructure, and illegal wood harvesting in forested areas now threatens the archaeological heritage produced by these societies. These modern interventions result in irreversible loss of heritage contexts, previously unexplored in forests. Additionally, these sites face increasing threats from looting and trafficking. Identifying forest-covered archaeological sites is therefore key to understanding the socio-technological complexity of pre-Columbian societies. Our approach and accompanying tool will document looting activities in the region. The project will therefore highlight the impact of LiDAR for preventing art and heritage crimes.

Implementing remote sensing technology in this South American region offers methodological advantages, pushing the boundaries of existing LiDAR research on the continent. This novel approach to remote sensing data holds promise for classifying complex architectural features that blend into the natural landscape, as is the case in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

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