Drones spot looting of ancient tombs at Jordan site

New York: Not just delivering pizzas or attacking enemies in the battlefield, drones are now being used to document and monitor a ravaged landscape on the Dead Sea Plain in Jordan.

The findings reveal that looting still continues at the site of Feifa, located 38 km south of Bab edh-Dhra’, though at a measurably reduced pace, according to an archaeologist from Chicago-based DePaul University.

The site contains a small Iron Age fortified village partly overlying a very large cemetery with ancient tombs. In the last few decades, Feifa has been the focus of intensive looting, with an estimated loss of thousands tombs.

“Drones are proving to be powerful new tools to archaeologists for documenting excavation, mapping landscapes and identifying buried features. They also can be applied to monitor site destruction and looting in the present,” said Morag M Kersel, assistant professor of anthropology at DePaul.

Three seasons of monitoring at Feifa demonstrated that UAVs can provide quantifiable evidence for the rate of ongoing site damage, even in contexts where other remote sensing systems would provide insufficient data.

“Between 2013-14, we had 34 new looting episodes — holes — clearly people were still looting. In the next year, there’s very little or no evidence of looting. Why?” Kersel said. “Is it because there is no demand Early Bronze Age ceramics?

“An element of the ongoing research is the examination of why looting has abated. Are there no more graves to loot?,” she asked.

Archaeologists for years have been using satellite images to quantify the number of looted graves.

“Comparing satellite images with the lunar-like landscape of Feifa led us to the revolutionary idea of using drones to gather data with higher resolution from areas of our own choosing,” Kersel explained.

Kersel discussd how drones are an emerging tool for archeology during a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, last weekend.