When people hear Chad Hill uses homemade drones to track looting at ancient burial sites in the Middle East, he often has to do some clarifying.
“We’re not using the drones to track people in any way,” says the archeologist, who is a researcher with the University of Connecticut. Instead, Hill is using drone images of massive swaths of land to spot displaced earth and other visible signs of looting from the air.
And while the work does not involve the dramatic Indiana Jones-with-a-drone high-speed chase of looters across the desert that some envision, it is important and full of intrigue—think Indiana Jones meets Mission: Impossible, only with less action and more science.
Hill is working with the “Follow the Pots” project, a research effort headed by Morag Kersel, an archeologist at DePaul University in Chicago. The project was initiated to investigate how and why people excavate, loot, sell and collect pottery vessels from graves within a sprawling 5,000-year-old Bronze Age burial site in southern Jordan, not far from the Dead Sea.
For the past three years, Hill and the project team have conducted surveys of the burial sites of Bab adh-Dhra`, en-Naqa and Fifa. For decades, looters have been wreaking havoc on the area, which is home to about 10,000 graves. “As of this year there are 3,000 or so holes that have been dug in the ground,” Hill explains. “Not every one of those is in fact a looted burial site, but the vast majority are looted graves.”
A recent Associated Press story about the project described the burial site as looking “like a moonscape as a result of looting, with about 3,700 craters stretching to the horizon and strewn with shards of skeletons and broken ceramics.” (See aerial image below.)
Looters dig up the desert ground. When they find actual graves, they discard the bones and broken ceramics and take well-preserved artifacts including sought-after ancient pots.
Though these artifacts demand a hefty price on the black market, the looters have robbed each one of historic value. “We lose almost all context and information about what was in the ground at the burials,” Hill says.
What happens to the artifacts after they leave the site is a complicated web of international intrigue that members of “Follow the Pots” project are dedicated to unraveling. “Once items are looted, we know from ethnographic interviews with looters, middlemen and dealers, that people from Amman and Kerak come to the site in ‘big black’ cars to buy the pots,” says Kersel, who heads the project. “The pots then go from person to person through various well-established networks of trade—direct sales to collectors, to dealers in Jordan and other parts of the world, Israel, Dubai, London and in sales arenas like EBay, licensed shops and eventually to private and institutional collections. We are trying to connect all of the dots in the network—hence the name ‘follow the pots.’”
Hill and his drones provide the first step in the looting tracking process. More than merely taking pictures above the burial site, the drones are programmed to photograph precise areas of land and then complex algorithms are used to “look at how the shape of the ground changes from season to season,” Hill says.
Hill received his Ph.D from UConn in Anthropology with a focus on archeology. While at UConn, he also received a graduate certificate in Geographic Information Systems from the university’s Geography Department. He first struck upon the idea of using drones for archeological surveys as an alternative to costly helicopter sweeps of sites.
The use of drone technology has been an important part of the “Follow the Pots” project says Kersel, “The combination of Chad’s amazing UAV and computer skills and the ethnographic data have enabled us to develop a model for monitoring change at an archeological site.” She adds, “Simultaneously, we are tracking landscape change and we are assessing the efficacy of law enforcement, Department of Antiquities protection programs, fences, guards, local outreach and local site monitoring to protect the site. This is an innovative and non-traditional approach to a landscape, where many would ask ‘Is there anything left to learn?’ With the assistance of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities we are creating new ways of learning about and recording the threatened cultural heritage of Jordan.”
In addition to the Associated Press, National Geographic has written about the program and its utilization of drone technology. Though today Hill lives in Philadelphia, he continues to impress his former professors at UConn. “Chad was an excellent student who pushed the envelope in his dissertation research by applying a wide range of methods for investigating social complexity using faunal remains,” says Natalie Munro, professor of Anthropology at UConn. “But what makes Chad most fascinating is his passion for an eclectic range of hobbies. One of these is his interest in remote unmanned vehicles—something he picked up from his dad as a boy. He developed his current research program using UAVs [drones] completely independently and has applied the technique to a wide range of archeological questions in different times and places. It’s an excellent example of combining two loves to come up with a stellar research program.”