An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is using satellite imagery to peer into the ancient Mexican past. Bill Middleton, an archeologist, is teaming up with computer scientists to build the most detailed landscape map of the southern state of Oaxaca in order to learn more about the Zapotec civilization. According to Middleton, who probably spoke only about Mexico, the Zapotec people 'had the first writing system, the first state society, the first cities.' The project is funded by National Geographic and NASA which is providing three years of images taken by Earth Observing 1 and Landsat satellites. But read more...
You can see above a photo of the archeologist and project leader Bill Middleton holding replicas of Zapotec funerary urns bought at a regional market in the southern Mexican state Oaxaca. (Credit: A. Sue Weisler, RIT) Here is a link to a larger version of this photo (RIT Campus Spotlight, April 9, 2008). ScienceDaily has found a picture showing how Middleton has used satellite imagery obtained from NASA to create a detailed landscape map of the southern state of Oaxaca.
Surprisingly, Middleton, acting chair of the Department of Material Culture Sciences and professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at RIT, has not a Internet home page. At least, I have not found it. But here is a link to a Middleton interview (Ilsa Shaw, Reporter Online, Rochester, NY, April 11, 2008). Middleton says he's "an archeological scientist, or what we call in the field, an archaeometrist."
In this interview, Shaw states: "Some of your students have said you're pretty wacky." Here is Middleton's answer. "As far as the wackiness, I think I was dropped on my head when I was a child. Actually, my father tells me that at least on one occasion I fell out of my high chair before my first year. And I continue to bang my head, so that might have something to do with it—the cumulative brain damage. I think part of the goofiness comes from having spent so much of my life outside of the United States."
I could have enjoyed such a teacher. Anyway, he's not alone working on this project. He is helped by colleagues John Kerekes and David Messinger of the RIT's Center for Imaging Science (CIS).
Now, let's go back to the RIT news release and some quotes from the computer scientists working on this project. "'We are excited to be collaborating with Bill in this application of remote sensing technology to archaeological study,' says Kerekes. 'This project shows a true strength of RIT with an environment that allows physical scientists and engineers like us to easily work together with a social scientist like Bill.' Adds Messinger: 'Applications of remote sensing have long been a motivating factor for our technology work in the field of remote sensing, and the chance to work closely with an end-user here at RIT is a fantastic opportunity for our students and faculty. By learning more about how the technology can help in this application, we will be in a much better position to guide our future sensor development and algorithmic research.'"
Here is a short description of how the technology works. "The technology works by differentiating materials on the ground on the basis of reflected light. Objects that look the same in visible light may have very different reflective properties when sampled across the spectrum. 'When you put the data back together as a picture you begin to see things you couldn't see before, and you can make distinctions that to your eyes look the same,' Middleton says."
This project is also focused on environmental change. As says Middleton, "Roughly 10,000 years ago, Oaxaca was wetter than it is today. Today it's classified as semi-arid, and the dominant vegetation in the valley is thorn-scrub forest. Ten thousand years ago, it was a grassland and there were horses there."
Sources: Rochester Institute of Technology news release, May 13, 2008; and various websites
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