The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

December 3, 2012

WVU researchers help PBS series look for secrets under the ground


MORGANTOWN — They may have spent more than 30 hours rattling through the air in a twin-engine aircraft and traveled almost 3,500 miles roundtrip, but for West Virginia University researchers Paul Kinder and Adam Riley their most recent data-gathering excursion was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.

The duo, researchers with the Natural Resource Analysis Center in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, recently traveled to the Midwest and Southwest to collect high-resolution airborne light detection and ranging data of several sites in Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Data gathered during the trip will be used to support the Public Broadcasting Service television series Time Team America.

The PBS series tracks the adventure as archaeologists race against time to excavate historic sites around the nation. The team has three days to uncover buried secrets using the latest technology, decades of expertise and their own sharp wits.

Last fall, Kinder and Riley volunteered to attend a workshop in Boston, Mass., focusing on visualization of landscapes. It was there they met Meg Watters, a remote sensing specialist and archeologist with Time Team America.

“We shared our capabilities with her and our relationship grew from there,” Kinder said. “Being asked to support the Time Team America program was an incredible opportunity for WVU NRAC. We are thrilled as this will most certainly open more doors for us in archeological studies, and other small area, high-resolution landscape analyses.”

A non-intrusive, active remote sensing technology, LiDAR is used to collect highly accurate elevation data of the Earth’s surface. The technology combines four key components — aircraft, laser scanner, dual-frequency GPS, and an Inertial Measurement Unit — and works by emitting a laser pulse that comes in contact with the Earth and reflects back to the aircraft and the laser’s receiver.

To assist the Time Team America crew, the researchers were tasked with mapping three specific sites to be filmed for broadcast.

Their airborne exploration began in Woodward, Okla., where scientists believe more than 300 bison skeletons remain along the arroyo.

“The models generated from the LiDAR data will allow them to better plan archaeological investigations to first target areas that are in threat of eroding and disappearing as well as better define the shape and form of the stream’s pattern,” Riley explained.

They then collected data over the Zuni Reservation in Zuni Pueblo, N.M., concentrating efforts on Hawikku which was once home to the Zuni Ancestral Village.

“Here, teams are looking for clues as to where an ancient military fort may have once been situated,” he said. “Subtle variations in a high-resolution surface model save countless hours and possible site disturbance via traditional methods.”

Their final destination was Cortez, Colo., where they gathered data around an Ancestral Puebloan village that inhabited the canyons of the Mesa Verde region more than 700 years ago.

LiDAR is like radar only it measures the return time of light pulses instead of radio waves. While it can be executed day or night, gathering data requires a significant amount of planning and coordination.

“Weather, clouds, GPS, restricted flight areas, travel time, mission logistics on site, and aircraft availability are all factors we have to work around each time we plan a campaign, and each can change without much forewarning,” Riley said.

The researchers were fortunate to encounter minimal problems during the trip, but it wasn’t without challenges.

“The project was challenging in both data capture logistics as well as data analysis of very high point densities in sensitive areas of interest,” Kinder said.

As an example, traditional high-resolution digital elevation models contain at least one to two ground points per square meter; however, the data captured at these locations averaged eight to 10.

“Since the project required an extremely high point density, the surfaces created were half-meter digital elevation models,” Riley said. “This is huge because most, if not all, previous archaeological research was done using one-meter datasets.”

These datasets will greatly benefit not only the researchers and archaeologists participating in the Time Team America adventure but also scientists with an interest in uncovering what potentially lies beneath the surface.

“When they’re analyzing the surfaces trying to detect any clues as to what might be where, even the smallest of variations are important,” Riley said. “With the data in hand, researchers have a really good idea where to start their work before ever arriving on site.”

The show will air in 2013, but the exact timing is unknown at this time.

For this data-gathering project, WVU partnered with Oregon Public Broadcasting, as well as researchers from Oklahoma University.

NRAC was formed in the early 1990s as a multi-disciplinary research and teaching facility in the Davis College. Areas of expertise at NRAC include economic development and environmental sustainability, remote sensing, land cover mapping, landscape analyses, watershed-based analysis and applications, and GIS-based planning and decision making.