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This summer Jesse Casana will fly a drone over northern Iraq — in the name of archaeology. “It’s definitely not something a lot of civilians do,” he acknowledged with a laugh.

Casana, a professor and researcher with the University of Arkansas Department of Anthroplogy, recently made news after using a drone to reveal a buried prehistoric Puebloan community in New Mexico. The thousand-year-old community, known as “Blue J” and located just south of the famous Chaco Canyon archaeological site, consists of about 60 homes clustered around what was once a small spring. The homes and walls had been buried in part by the collapsed structures themselves, but also by centuries of windblown sandstone and silt. The full extent of the community lay unseen and unknown until last summer, when Casana’s drone flew overhead.

Casana and his team, including Professor John Kantner of the University of North Florida, used thermal imaging to reveal the sub-surface structures. “We can see where each one is, where the houses are, where the courtyard is; in a couple places we found subterranean ceremonial rooms, called kivas, which we weren’t expecting at all.”

Archaeologists have been using aerial thermal imaging since the 1970s, but the technology is labor-intensive: You need high-resolution thermal images of a large area at the right time of day. Imagine a wall versus the type of soil it’s buried in: At some times of day they have the same temperature and to a thermal lens appear indistinct, but because the materials cool at different rates, at other times the wall becomes visible. “We have to do a lot of flights,” Casana said.

He expressed a keen interest in the 3DR Aero, because of its affordability and its autonomy — “I’m a terrible pilot!” — and because it offers several advantages specific to archaeology. “Drones allow us to cover huge areas. You can time flights exactly, and you don’t have to worry about precise weather conditions. Plus they can help us map things very quickly — there’s a limited time, and hundreds of sites.”

So while Casana’s pleased about the Pueblo discovery, he seems even more sanguine about the future: “More importantly, our research demonstrates the potential of this method to be used more broadly, around the world.”

The Blue J study was published this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Read it in its entirety here.