Academics and Research

Professor maps ancient burial sites using radar technology

Lawrence Conyers knows just how challenging and rewarding field research can be. The University of Denver anthropology professor has crisscrossed the globe — from El Salvador to Australia — exploring and mapping ancient burial sites using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technology.

Conyers’ latest project returned him to the rugged Australian outback, where he once assisted the community in locating ancestral grave sites threatened by mining activity.

“I was able to very accurately map graves that were European, and also others that were pre-contact traditional aboriginal burials,” Conyers says. “The aborigines were really excited, too, as I had a very good method that could identify their ancestors’ graves without having to dig them up.

Thanks to his success in identifying ancient burial sites, Conyers was asked to travel back to Australia in order to help the Mapoons identify other possible Aboriginal burial mounds.

“We [found] two new very interesting burial areas that I think have an ancient component,” Conyers says. “On one mound, our oldest informant remembers three or four people being buried there … and we found 28 people buried there.”

While aluminum ore-mining operations pose a serious threat to the sacred land, Conyers’ work focuses more on locating these burial sites than eternally preserving them.

“I am not really trying to save anything from mining,” Conyers says. “The laws in Australia are very different than ours regarding minerals. No one owns anything below about one foot deep. The government controls that. My goals were to find Aboriginal graves in various spots so that the local community can take possession of them — emotionally for now — and perhaps in the future protect them.”

The Mapoon people knew the general locations of the burial mounds, but Conyers helped pinpoint their exact locations using GPR, allowing for placement of surface markers.

GPR involves the transmission of high-frequency radar pulses from a surface antenna into the ground. The elapsed time between when this energy is transmitted, reflected from buried materials or sediment and soil and then received back at the surface is measured. When many thousands of radar reflections are measured and recorded, a three-dimensional picture of soil, sediment and feature changes can be created.

Conyers first developed an interest in GPR while conducting field research as a graduate student.

“I was working on my PhD dissertation in El Salvador, trying to understand a buried Mayan site from the year AD 600,” says Conyers, who has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Colorado-Boulder. “In order to reach the buried features, holes had to be dug about three to five meters through volcanic ash. I kept thinking that there must be a better way to do this.” Upon seeing preliminary results from the then-new technology, Conyers knew it could be beneficial to his research.

“I was able to get help from a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who was instrumental in inventing this new technology and many others over the years,” Conyers says. “I was able to take what was then a very new technology and apply it to archaeological problems.”

Conyers has since used GPR to locate evidence of ancient civilizations, including temples, harbors and a shaft in a Peruvian pyramid containing the mummy of a tattooed woman who, according to a June 2006 National Geographic Magazine article, may have been an ancient Moche ruler or priestess.

He’s written or co-authored three definitive texts — “Ground-Penetrating Radar: An Introduction for Archaeologists” (Altamira Press, 1997), “Ground-Penetrating Radar for Archaeology” (Altamira Press, 2004) and “Ground-Penetrating Radar for Geoarchaeology” (Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2015) — as well as dozens of book chapters and journal articles.




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