Friday, August 26, 2016

Ancient Eleon from Above

Aerial photography has long been valuable tool for archaeologists. Getting a ‘bird’s eye’ view not only impresses audiences but more importantly it provides useful information on the use of space and the relationship of topography, architecture, and excavated units. Early methods of aerial photography include using kites, balloons, cranes, and very tall ladders. Google Earth also provides good imaging but the level of detail and the lack of control of when an image is taken make its usefulness limited.

In recent years many projects have started to employ small drones equipped with cameras in their excavation. The Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project first used drone photography in 2014 with the project co-directors (Burke and Burns) making a strong attempt to learn this new and complex recording method.

Both learned the fundamentals of drone flying (including the meaning of terms like ‘pitch’, ‘roll’ and ‘yaw’) and they learned what was necessary to repair the drone and camera. Being somewhat out their element, the directors auditioned several interested students to see if they were especially adapted to flying. They were impressed with the transferrable skills that the computer gamers had which worked very well with drone flying. Toward the end of the summer, after some heavy knocks and tumbles (using a yogurt container as part of the drone was the least of our problems) on the drone making it unusable for the rest of the summer.

It was very fortunate that one of our Dilesi landlords, George Mamonis, just happened to be a small airplane hobbyist. George was more than happy to equip his hobby plane with our Go-Pro camera (also note the yogurt container) for a few evening flights which gave us very good results in 2014. All of these early efforts were a good start but the project realized it needed a dedicated staff person for the drone and aerial photography.

In 2015 our project welcomed Jordan Tynes from Wellesley College for technological support with aerial photography and digital imaging. Jordan spent a week with us and made great headway in capturing still images and video from above.

Jordan also began experiments that have led us from aerial photos to three dimensional models based on drone data. In 2016 with a grant from the Friends of the Library at Wellesley College, Jordan was able to completely revise our aerial and digital photography program. In June this year he arrived with several very heavy suitcases containing two drones, a few computers, and a hand-held 3D scanner.

He and his team took daily aerial shots of all excavated areas, and photogrammetry software produced 3D models and photo mosaics that are geo-coordinated. This imagery records data at great precision, and offers an important complement to our traditional architectural drawings, digital measurements, and descriptions by trench supervisors. Drone photography also produced new video images of our entire site with our team in action. In addition we began a program of 3D scanning of excavated objects, carved objects and complete pots, which we look forward to sharing in publications, at conferences and on social media.

With these new recording tools we are able to provide a much more engaging and lively presentation of our excavation. The enthusiastic responses from audiences show that our work is making an impact. We will of course continue and expand our digital imaging in 2017.

Brendan Burke & Bryan Burns
University of Victoria & Wellesley College

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