Archaeologists hunt for history using satellites

Posted: Monday, April 03, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A pair of archaeologists has earned the necessary security clearances so they can use government satellites to study ancient sites in Alaska's Brooks Range.

Cyd Martin with the National Park Service and Owen Mason with the University of Alaska Fairbanks are scientists, not spies.

But the lengthy process to gain the security checks allows them to work at Elmendorf Air Force Base where they can compare satellite images with maps of archaeological sites in Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The goal for the time being isn't so much to find any new sites as it is to see if the technology might be helpful. Archaeologists long have used aerial photographs to find and map traces of ancient human activity. But satellite images are relatively new, and the archaeologists are wondering if the satellite renderings are better than photos.

''We're asking ourselves if it's worth all the hurdles you go through,'' Martin told the Anchorage Daily News. ''Or is it better to have archaeologists hiking across the landscape?''

In the pilot project, Martin and Mason are using the satellite images to examine known sites along the Killik River drainage in Gates of the Arctic. The main one is a hunting site named Tingmiukpuk, tucked among sand dunes by the river.

The site probably was used for hunting or butchering caribou, Mason said.

Archaeologists thought at first it was about 8,000 years old. But the latest radiocarbon dating of caribou bones places the site at about 3,500 years old, he said.

The people who used the site may have been ancestors of today's Inupiat Eskimos, but it's hard to say. In historic times, Athabaskan Indians and Inupiat Eskimos hunted caribou in the region, Mason said.

The artifacts found, which range from projectile points for spears to fire-cracked rock, caribou bones and pieces of obsidian that might have been inset into bone cylinders, are typically associated with Coastal Eskimos, he said.

Using U.S. government satellite images may be new to archaeologists but not to other branches of the government.

The military has shared satellite images with other government agencies at least since 1975, said Maj. Les Codlick, director of public affairs for the Alaskan Command.

The images are used for a number of purposes, including monitoring volcanoes, wildfires and other natural disasters; mapping wetlands; and studying global climate change, he said.

''They can track erosion on a beach or moisture on a wheat field,'' Codlick said.

It's not quite accurate to call them spy satellites, Codlick said. The images actually are taken by a combination of government satellites orbiting Earth from those used to track weather to others used for surveillance.

Martin said one advantage the satellite images have over aerial photos is cost. The military can take the images archaeologists need whenever satellites aren't busy looking at something else. Martin simply gives officials the coordinates of the area she wants to look at. There is no charge to the National Park Service, she said.

The budget for the project is about $180,000, Martin said. That includes research and travel time and has paid for some additional fieldwork.

Last summer, a team of archaeologists, a geomorphologist and a paleobotanist flew into the area, then rafted down the Killik River. They worked while a large bear roamed nearby along the sand dunes, Martin said.

Martin said that's one advantage to using the satellite images -- you don't have to look out for bears or swat mosquitoes while working. Another is that archaeologists can examine vast amounts of terrain.

Gates of the Arctic, dubbed Alaska's ultimate wilderness, covers 8.5 million acres. Martin said archaeologists have surveyed only about 5 percent to 10 percent of the park and have barely mapped anything in the western half.

Martin said she'll know in about a year whether the technology holds promise for other archaeologists.

Just don't expect to hear any of the details, she said. Those are classified.

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