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Thermal drone reveals ancestral Wichita site in Kansas

Thermal drone reveals ancestral Wichita site in Kansas

A thermal drone reveals an ancestral Wichita site in Kansas and showcases how drone technology can be used to discover archaeological structures under the soil.

Thermal drone reveals ancestral Wichita site in Kansas

Thermal drones or unmanned aircraft outfitted with thermal cameras can help you spot temperature differences. For instance, thermal drones are used by firemen to identify hotspots in burning structures. Search and Rescue crews use the unmanned aircraft to help find missing people. And now, archeologists use them to reveal ancestral sites like this one in Wichita, Kansas.

The principal is pretty straightforward. Things warm up during the day and cool off during the night. A drone that is outfitted with a thermal camera can help identify archaeological structures that are hidden underneath the soil as they respond differently to temperature changes during the day compared to the surrounding area. With a thermal aerial perspective, you can quickly survey a large area and discover archaeological features that are not visible on the surface.

Thermal drone reveals ancestral Wichita site in Kansas

Left: Drone-acquired ortho-image of the site showing major features discussed in the paper. Right: Thermal images mosaic showing archaeological features.

In Wichita, Kansas a team of researchers used this technique to find what they believe is part ofEtzanoa, a famous Wichita ancestral city, where around 20,000 Wichita people have lived until the 1700s.

“Our findings demonstrate that undiscovered monumental earthworks may still exist in the Great Plains. You just need a different archeological approach to recognize them,” explained lead author, Jesse J. Casana, a professor and chair of the department of anthropology at Dartmouth. “Our results are promising in suggesting that there may be many other impressive archaeological features that have not yet been documented if we look hard enough,” he added, according to ZME Science.

Even though nothing was visible on the surface, researchers suspected that there might be something there based on other findings in the area. A survey conducted with a thermal drone over 45 acres revealed a circular shape ditch that measures 164 feet wide and approximately 6 feet thick it has been filled in. Casana believes this to be a so-called council circle, similar to others that have been found in the region. He believes this is a strong indicator of a sprawling yet unitary Wichita city.

Casana adds that it’s not entirely clear what is council circles were used for. Some archaeologists believe that they were reserved for important tribal discussions or were used for ceremonial or political purposes. However, the circles could also have been used as a mechanism of defense.

The team of researchers is planning to use the thermal drone to scan the surrounding area and look for similar buried structures.

“While we may never know what the council circles were used for or their significance, new archaeological methods allow us to see that people made these earthworks.”

Journal Reference: Jesse Casana et al, A Council Circle at Etzanoa? Multi-sensor Drone Survey at an Ancestral Wichita Settlement in Southeastern Kansas, American Antiquity (2020). DOI: 10.1017/aaq.2020.49

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Image credits: by Jesse Casana, Elise Jakoby Laugier, and Austin Chad Hill.

Haye Kesteloo

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