Scientists hunt for history via satellite

Posted: Tuesday, April 04, 2000

FAIRBANKS - A pair of archaeologists have won the security clearances they need to use government satellites to study ancient sites in Alaska's Brooks Range.

Cyd Martin with the National Park Service and Owen Mason with the University of Alaska Fairbanks are scientists, not spies.

But the lengthy process to gain security clearance allows them to work at Elmendorf Air Force Base where they can compare satellite images with maps of archaeological sites in Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The goal for the time being isn't so much to find any new sites as it is to see if the technology might be helpful. Archaeologists long have used aerial photographs to find and map traces of ancient human activity. But satellite images are relatively new, and the archaeologists are wondering if the satellite renderings are better than photos.

``We're asking ourselves if it's worth all the hurdles you go through,'' Martin told the Anchorage Daily News. ``Or is it better to have archaeologists hiking across the landscape?''

In the pilot project, Martin and Mason are using the satellite images to examine known sites along the Killik River drainage in Gates of the Arctic. The main one is a hunting site that was probably was used for hunting or butchering caribou about 3,500 years ago. The people who used the site may have been ancestors of today's Inupiat Eskimos.

Using U.S. government satellite images may be new to archaeologists, but not to other branches of the government.

The military has shared satellite images with other government agencies at least since 1975, said Maj. Les Codlick, director of public affairs for the Alaskan Command.

The images are used for a number of purposes, including monitoring volcanoes, wildfires and other natural disasters; mapping wetlands; and studying global climate change, he said.

``They can track erosion on a beach or moisture on a wheat field,'' Codlick said.

It's not quite accurate to call them spy satellites, Codlick said. The images actually are taken by a combination of government satellites orbiting Earth that track weather as well as surveillance.

Martin said satellite images cost less than field work. The military can take the images archaeologists need whenever satellites aren't busy looking at something else. Martin simply gives officials the coordinates of the area she wants to look at. There is no charge to the National Park Service, she said.

The budget for the project is about $180,000, Martin said. That includes research and travel time and has paid for some additional fieldwork.

Martin said satellite images will allow archaeologists to examine vast amounts of terrain faster than walking over hills and tundra. Another advantage is they don't have to look out for bears or swat mosquitoes, he said.

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