This site is threatened on every side, said Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, Peru’s vice minister of cultural heritage as he piloted the drone aircraft.
Archaeologists around the world, who have long relied on the classic tools of their profession, like the trowel and the plumb bob, are now turning to the modern technology of drones to defend and explore endangered sites. And perhaps nowhere is the shift happening as swiftly as in Peru, where Dr. Castillo has created a drone air force to map, monitor and safeguard his country’s ancient treasures.
Drones mark “a before and after in archaeology,” said Dr. Castillo, who is also a prominent archaeologist and one of a dozen experts who will outline the use of drones at a conference in San Francisco next year.
In remote northwestern New Mexico, archaeologists are using drones outfitted with thermal-imaging cameras to track the walls and passages of a 1,000-year-old Chaco Canyon settlement, now buried beneath the dirt.
In the Middle East, researchers have employed them to guard against looting.
“Aerial survey at the site is allowing for the identification of new looting pits and determinations of whether any of the looters’ holes had been revisited,” said Morag Kersel, an archaeologist from DePaul University in Chicago who is part of a team using drones in Jordan and Israel.
Peru, with its stunning concentration of archaeological riches, is suddenly fertile ground to try out this new technology. The country is becoming a research hot spot as archaeologists in the Middle East and elsewhere find their work interrupted by unrest.
But in Peru they encounter another kind of conflict. Here they struggle to protect the country’s archaeological heritage from squatters and land traffickers, who often secure property through fraud or political connections to profit from rising land values. Experts say hundreds, perhaps thousands of ancient sites are endangered by such encroachment.
The drones can address the problem, quickly and cheaply, by providing bird’s-eye views of ruins that can be converted into 3-D images and highly detailed maps.
The maps are then used to legally register the protected boundaries of sites, a kind of landmarking that can be cited in court to prevent development or to punish those who damage ruins by building anyway.
“While various scholars are utilizing drones in their individual investigations, no other country is systematically using drones to manage and protect their sites,” said Lawrence Coben, founder of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, a nonprofit organization providing economic opportunities to poor communities in which archaeological sites are located. Encroachment has become a particular concern in cities like Lima or Cuzco, near Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel, where land values have risen steadily as the population increases and the economy booms. Many Peruvians were shocked last year when workers using heavy machinery illegally demolished a 4,000-year-old pyramid in Lima to make way for possible development.
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“Lima has grown to a point where the only land left is archaeological land,” said Dr. Castillo, who is also a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
Though his work is focused on the deep past, Dr. Castillo is fascinated by gadgets and new technology. He began experimenting with drones about two years ago, buying a $100 one from the Sharper Image. Now he has a squadron of eight, all miniature helicopters that cost about $1,500 to $20,000. He hopes to soon add 20 more.
The drones, he said, “solve the first riddle of archaeology.”
“Finally you can fly whenever you want to, wherever you want to, in any angle, for anything you want and get the great picture you always thought you should take,” he said.
Dr. Castillo’s eureka moment occurred in 2012, while teaching in Sweden, where researchers were working with a powerful Russian-made computer program that could meld hundreds of photographs into a 3-D composite image. Dr. Castillo realized that by feeding his drone photographs into the program, he could produce incredibly detailed and clear 3-D images of ancient temples, fortifications and burial sites.
When asked last year to become a deputy culture minister with jurisdiction over archaeology, he brought his fledgling air force with him, using the drones in the cities but also in more remote areas like this one, known as Cerro Chepén, a sprawling site on the northern coast of Peru that dates to about A.D. 850 and the late stages of the Moche civilization. While the immense stone walls here may not be as sophisticated as those at some later sites like Machu Picchu, they are still impressive.
Pointing to a nearby hillside, Dr. Castillo said that last year a survey team spent two months, at a cost of thousands of dollars, to map the area using conventional methods. Now, with a drone, he covers a similar area in less than 10 minutes. Once he loads the photos into a computer program, he can have a map the next day.
“The faster we produce the maps, the more parts of the site we’re going to be able to save,” he said.
Earlier on Cerro Chepén, Aldo Watanave, who leads Dr. Castillo’s drone team, had been unable to get a larger drone to work when the apparatus that controls the camera’s movement failed. Dr. Castillo and his staff often must rely on their ingenuity, jury-rigging the drones to hold cameras in place. In this instance, Mr. Watanave tried tying the apparatus in place with string but then the mechanism that made the camera take pictures at regular intervals also went on the fritz. Dr. Castillo ended up using a smaller drone for the job.
The nerve center for the drone effort is in the basement of the Culture Ministry, a massive gray concrete building in Lima. In cramped cubicles, eight men and women work with the 3-D maps created from drone photographs, refining them and adding information, including details about land ownership and archaeological excavations.
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The task before them is daunting. Peru has an estimated 100,000 sites of archaeological importance, though experts acknowledge that is little more than a guess. Of those, only about 2,500 have been mapped in some way and only about 200 are fully inscribed in public registers owing to money and manpower issues.
“We have a mountain of work to do and a very small budget,” said Nohemí Ortiz, who directs the office responsible for registering sites. “But we have to start somewhere.”
Recently their work brought them to Pimentel, a Pacific beach town where about 700 years ago a fishing village occupied a raised expanse of sand. The sand on a recent visit was littered with artifacts, pieces of pottery, a ceramic shard featuring the snout of a feline creature, notched stones once used as fishing weights and chunks of coral that may have once marked the perimeter of houses.
But a large area of sand around the mound, and perhaps parts of the mound itself, were recently flattened with heavy equipment. Stakes were driven into the sand in what appeared to be an effort to establish property lines.
Government archaeologists discovered the encroachment when they arrived to map the site with conventional methods.
Carlos Wester La Torre, an archaeologist who directs the nearby Brüning National Archaeological Museum, said it appeared that local leaders had begun to parcel up the beachfront to take advantage of escalating land values.
“I think they wanted to disturb this so they could say it’s not worth anything,” he said of the damage to the site, “like taking a book and ripping out the pages so you can’t read the story anymore.”
Dr. Castillo’s team had arrived just that day. Soon one of his drones was buzzing overhead, recording what was left of local prehistory before it, too, would be obliterated.