Technology and Archaeology

Technology is becoming an increasingly important part of archaeological investigation. Not only can it provide us with an aerial perspective, but also allows us to locate archaeological features without digging, thus saving time, money, and precious cultural resources. Luckily for us, through the power of the technologies available such as aerial imagery either from aircraft or drones, geophysical survey, and geospatial analysis, among others, we can generate new data sources. While these still leave some guess work, they can provide plenty of information about communities that otherwise have little to no documentation. A great example of this has emerged in my own master’s thesis research over the last year. So what is my research? What technologies did I use? What did I learn? Read on to find out…


The Singer-Hieronymus Site

The archaeological site in focus is Singer-Hieronymus, a complex of four separate Native American villages scattered across a ridgetop in Scott County. Those who lived there, the Fort Ancient, were a Native American people that existed in parts of Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia from roughly A.D. 1000 – A.D. 1750. Previous archaeological research has helped determine much about Fort Ancient life including how their material culture, house size and shape, and community organization changed over time. At the site itself, the research of Gwynn Henderson and David Pollack in the 1990s, had revealed details about the material culture, the relative ages of the communities (all falling somewhere between A.D. 1200 and A.D. 1550), and the likely shape of each village. Given my time constraints (I want to actually graduate with my MS degree in 2018), I have decided to focus on one out of the four communities at Singer-Hieronymus. This community, which I call Village B, had not been the focus of extensive research before.


Technology at Work

I have incorporated data from as many technologies as possible into my research at Singer-Hieronymus. These include historical aerial photographs, aerial imaging using a drone, geophysical survey, and geospatial analysis. Luckily for us archaeologists, the United States Geological Survey maintains an archive of aerial photographs spanning from the 1930s to present. My quest for imagery turned out to be productive and in searching in the area of Singer-Hieronymus, I stumbled upon an image from 1952 showing the remains of three out of the four known communities in the soil. Through this image, I learned much about the general shape and location of the community I was researching. This became the reference point for much of my work thereafter. In attempt to evaluate the current condition of the village, a drone was used to take several overlapping images of the field. The outcome was a high resolution three-dimensional elevation model, which I hoped would capture any above ground features of the village that remain. This did not work, however, as historic plowing and erosion have wiped them away.


1952 USGS Aerial Image Showing The Remains of Village A,B, and C.


Digital elevation model produced by photogrammetry using drone imagery. Terraces are visible southwest to northeast. No evidence of above ground archaeological features.


In the spring, I set out with my advisor and a group of students from East Tennessee State University to conduct a geophysical survey of the village. By using the 1952 aerial photo, I was able to focus the survey exactly over Village B. Geophysical survey entails using instruments that measure different properties of soil such as magnetic, electrical, and physical properties. By doing this, it basically provides us with a snapshot of what is under the ground making it possible to identify archaeological features without digging.

Three geophysical instruments were used at Singer-Hieronymus: electromagnetic induction (EMI), Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), and Magnetic Gradiometry (MG). It is very important to conduct multiple geophysical methods, because each one provides a different picture of the soils and what is in them. EMI transmits electromagnetic waves to measure how conductive a soil is and its susceptibility to magnetic forces. This method is excellent for obtaining general patterns across a landscape. This was the most effective geophysical method at Singer-Hieronymus as the conductivity component provided an outline of the village very similar in resemblance to the aerial imagery. GPR uses radar waves at specific frequencies to measure physical and electrical changes in soils and can be used to locate a variety of archaeological features. GPR was used effectively at Singer-Hieronymus to locate refuse pits and other archaeological features. MG is similar to EMI in that it measures a soil’s ability to be magnetized, but different in that it also measures soils that possess their own magnetic field. MG was perhaps the least useful method at Singer-Hieronymus archaeologically, but it did display the impact of erosion on the village and landscape, which is very useful.


Electromagnetic Induction Survey.


Magnetic Gradiometry Survey.


Ground Penetrating Radar Survey.


Electromagnetic induction data showing extent of Village B.



Ground Penetrating Radar data showing overlapping pit features.


Magnetic gradiometry data showing erosion channels across the field.

Image courtesy of Aerial Photo Single Frame Archive


The use of multiple technologies at Singer-Hieronymus Village B has provided a plethora of new information about the archaeology and landscape history. While the internal organization of this village is still in question, it is clear that this was a circular community, which puts the occupation of Village B likely between A.D. 1200 and A.D. 1400. The continuation of my thesis work will reveal more about the age and internal organization of Village B in the coming year.

By: Claiborne Sea, East Tennessee State University