Byzantine church - Michal Fattal
A pillar lying on the mosaic floor of a Byzantine church at Midras Ruin near Beit Shemesh. Photo by Michal Fattal
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A breakthrough in conducting archaeological excavations may give Israeli scientists an edge in the race to uncover antiquities before they are destroyed by bulldozers clearing the way for roads and buildings.

A team headed by Dr. Lev Eppelbaum of Tel Aviv University's Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences has developed a new method of efficiently detecting objects buried dozens of meters below ground, using the same methods submarines do to communicate between each other.

The method, recently been published in the journal "Advances in Geosciences," is based on differentiating between the densities of various buried objects by gathering data from seven different technologies, among them echomagnetic soundings, radio transmissions of the type used to communicate with submarines and temperature measurements.

Some of these technologies are already in use in archaeological research; however, the innovation by Eppelbaum and his team is that it uses all of these methods together to overcome "noise from irrelevant objects," such as pipes in the ground, Eppelbaum told Haaretz.

After 15 years of work, Eppelbaum, together with two other Tel Aviv University scientists, Dr. Leonid Alperovich and Dr. Valery Zheludev, formulated an algorithm that combines the data "so that if one or more of the methods fail, good results can still be obtained from the data received from the other methods," Eppelbaum said.

The method, which has been tried at various archaeological sites involves installing sensors in a drone that hovers a little above ground level to pick up the data.

According to Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist, archaeologists in Israel today are not using sophisticated systems.

"We use ground-penetrating radar, which locates underground walls by sound waves and sketches a line, but we don't do this over a whole valley," he said. Satellite imagery or infrared technology "can help find walls under thick vegetation, but not very far underground," Bunimovitz said.

He said he and his colleagues normally survey land for antiquities "simply by going over the ground, meter by meter, looking at the surface and finding various remains, such as potsherds, identifying and dating them, and through them, drawing an archaeological map."

That is more or less the method by which archaeological surveys have been carried out in this country since the 1930s. Since the Archaeological Survey in Israel was founded in 1964, some 30,000 sites have been discovered by experts and volunteers, but archaeologists estimate there are another 20,000 still waiting to be found.

Bunimovitz says the new method will be useful, "for example, when we come to areas where there is concern that alluvial material has covered the site, or along Israel's coastline where sites are covered by seawater."

Be that as it may, Eppelbaum hints that the method is already moving toward a military application in discovering tunnels deep underground.