Aerial Archaeology: How Aerial Work Aviation Unearths History From Above

From the vast expanse of the Nazca Lines etched into the Peruvian desert to the intricate networks of ancient roads hidden beneath the dense forests of Chaco Canyon, Aerial Archaeology unveils the secrets of our past from a bird's-eye perspective. To unearth the truth about this interesting but important Aerial Work aviation community, Patrick Ryan will highlight what this sector does and how they do it.

Patrick Ryan  |  27th March 2024
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    Aerial view of Stonehenge, Sailisbury England

    From the cockpit of aircraft and the vantage point of drones, researchers embark on journeys through time, exploring hidden treasures and lost civilizations. Aerial Archaeology offers unique advantages and perspectives that distinguish it from traditional ground-based archaeological methods.

    Undoubtedly, Aerial Archaeology provides a bird's-eye view from above, allowing archaeologists to view landscapes and archaeological sites from above. It provides access to remote or inaccessible areas that may be difficult or impractical to reach on foot. Additionally, it's ideal for conducting preliminary assessments of archaeological sites without disturbing the underlying historical features or deposits. 

    So what is this particular sector of Aerial Work aviation, and how does it support the science of archaeology? In this article, we'll examine the practical intersection of aviation and archaeology, where each flight promises to unveil historical facts buried beneath the Earth's surface for millennia.

    What is Aerial Archaeology? 

    Aerial Archaeology encompasses the analysis and interpretation of various images or visual observations as part of field research aimed at comprehending archaeological features, sites, and landscapes. This approach facilitates the exploration and examination of context and vast land expanses, offering a scale of observation unmatched by traditional archaeological methods. 

    Widely employed for diverse archaeological objectives such as identifying new sites, recording existing ones, guiding excavation efforts, mapping individual sites, and monitoring their condition, Aerial Archaeology is a practical means for archaeological landscape mapping.

    Aerial Archaeology vs Aviation Archaeology 

    Not to be confused with Aviation Archaeology, Aerial Archaeology involves the study of archaeological sites, landscapes, and features from the air, while Aviation Archaeology focuses on the history of aviation. Aviation archaeology, also known as aircraft archaeology or crash site archaeology, focuses on investigating and interpreting aircraft wrecks and related artifacts. 

    This field involves the study of crashed aircraft, both military and civilian, as well as the historical context surrounding these events. Aviation archaeologists aim to understand the circumstances of aircraft crashes, the technology and construction of the aircraft involved, and the human stories associated with these events. 

    Overall, while Aerial Archaeology examines ancient human landscapes and cultural heritage from above, aviation archaeology investigates the remains of aircraft and aviation-related events to understand aspects of modern history, technology, and human activity.

    Famous Aerial Archaeology Findings 

    Because of the unique benefit of having a Birds-Eye view, Aerial archaeologists have made several famous archaeological findings over the decades. Some notable examples include: 

    Nazca Lines (Peru) - Discovered through aerial reconnaissance, these vast geoglyphs depicting various animals and shapes are carved into the desert floor of southern Peru.

    Stonehenge (UK) - Aerial photography has revealed previously unknown features surrounding Stonehenge, providing insights into its construction and significance within the landscape. 

    Chaco Canyon (USA) - Aerial surveys have identified extensive networks of ancient roads and settlements in Chaco Canyon, shedding light on the complex social organization and trade networks of the ancestral Puebloan people. 

    Roman Forts and Settlements (Europe) - Aerial photography has been instrumental in identifying Roman military installations, roads, and settlements across Europe, providing valuable insights into the scope and organization of the Roman Empire. 

    Angkor Wat (Cambodia) - Aerial surveys have helped archaeologists map the vast urban landscape surrounding it, revealing the extent of the ancient Khmer capital and its intricate water management systems.

    Tikal (Guatemala) - Aerial photography has aided in the documentation and mapping of the ancient Maya city of Tikal, revealing the layout of its temples, palaces, and residential areas hidden beneath the dense rainforest canopy. 

    It's easy to see these discoveries highlight the importance of Aerial Archaeology in uncovering and understanding ancient civilizations and landscapes worldwide.

    Today's Aerial Archaeology Methods & kit

    In today's field of Aerial Archaeology, technological advancements have revolutionized how archaeologists explore and understand ancient landscapes. With leading-edge methods and sophisticated equipment, archaeologists now leverage the power of aircraft, drones, and specialized sensors to enhance their efforts. The primary methods, techniques, aircraft, and systems Aerial Archaeology utilizes today are: 

    Regarding methods, Aerial Archaeology encompasses various techniques for studying archaeological sites from the air. Some common types include: 

    Aerial Photography - Capturing images of the ground from aircraft or drones to identify features not visible from the ground. 

    Aerial Surveying & Mapping - Conducting systematic surveys from the air to document and analyze archaeological sites, landscapes, and features. 

    Geophysical Surveys – Geophysical surveys Use instruments like ground-penetrating radar (GPR) or magnetometers from aircraft or drones to detect anomalies beneath the ground surface. 

    Aerial Observation – Aerial observation or aerial reconnaissance consists of flying over known or potential archaeological sites to visually identify features, patterns, or anomalies. 

    These techniques can be used individually or in combination to comprehensively study archaeological landscapes and uncover hidden historical sites.


    The types of aircraft used for Aerial Archaeology depend on various factors, such as the project's specific requirements, budget constraints, accessibility of the area, and the type of sensors or equipment being used. 

    Specifically, the aircraft type for Aerial Archaeology depends on balancing cost, maneuverability, range, endurance, and payload capacity to meet the project's specific needs. Additionally, safety, aircrew qualifications, and regulatory requirements must be considered. Here are some types or categories of aircraft commonly used in Aerial Archaeology:

    Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or Drones) - Multirotor Drones (quadcopters and hexacopters) are commonly used for close-range aerial photography and photogrammetry of archaeological sites. They offer precise control and can capture high-resolution imagery from various angles. Regarding Fixed-Wing Drones, Fixed-Wing drones are preferred for covering larger areas and conducting longer-duration flights. They are suitable for aerial surveys and LiDAR mapping but require more open space for takeoff and landing compared to multirotor drones. Some of the popular drones used in Aerial Archaeology are:
    • DJI Phantom Series
    • Parrot ANAFI Work
    • WingtraOne
    • SenseFly eBee X

    Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) - LSAs are a category of small, lightweight aircraft with simple designs and low operating costs. They're used in Aerial Archaeology for basic surveys and photography of archaeological sites, particularly in areas with limited infrastructure. The leading LSAs used are:
    • Piper Cub
    • Aeronca Models
    • Zenith CH-750

    Survey Aircraft - Specialized survey aircraft equipped with camera ports and sensor mounts are used for more advanced aerial surveying operations using LiDAR or multispectral imaging sensors. These aircraft are typically modified for specific research purposes and have longer endurance and higher payload capacities. Even though there's a broad spectrum of fixed-wing and helicopter make and models used for surveying, here are some of the leading brands modified for such work:
    • Cessna T303 Crusader
    • Diamond Aircraft DA42
    • Tecnam P2012 Sentinel SMP

    "Like with so many Aerial Work sectors, the future of Aerial Archaeology holds improving prospects, driven by advancements in technology, methodology, and interdisciplinary collaboration."

    Tools of the Trade 

    Besides the Mark I eyeball or a pair of binoculars, Aerial archaeologists rely on various hardware and software tools to conduct their research effectively. Here are some of the systems commonly used in Aerial Archaeology:

    LiDAR Systems
    - Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) systems emit laser pulses to measure distances to the ground surface, revealing topographic features and structures hidden beneath vegetation or terrain.

    Multispectral and Hyperspectral Imaging Systems - These systems capture images in multiple wavelengths of light, allowing aerial archaeologists to detect subtle variations in soil composition, vegetation health, and archaeological features. 

    Thermal Imaging Cameras - Thermal cameras detect differences in temperature on the ground surface, indicating buried archaeological features that retain heat differently than the surrounding soil.

    Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
    - GIS software such as ArcGIS or QGIS is used for spatial analysis, mapping, and visualization of archaeological data collected from aerial surveys. 

    Photogrammetry Software - Photogrammetry software packages like Agisoft Metashape or Pix4D process aerial imagery and create accurate 3D models of archaeological sites. 

    LiDAR Processing Software - Specialized LiDAR processing software, such as TerraScan or LAStools, processes and analyzes LiDAR data, extracts terrain models, and identifies archaeological features. 

    Data Management and Analysis Tools - Database management systems (e.g., PostgreSQL, SQLite) and statistical analysis software (e.g., R, Python) manage and analyze large datasets collected during aerial surveys.

    The Day and the Life of an Aerial Archaeologist

    The day-to-day life of an aerial archaeologist can vary greatly depending on their specific role, the location of their work, and the type of projects they're involved in. However, here's a generalized overview of what their interesting work might entail:

    Planning and Research - Aerial archaeologists often start their day by researching potential sites or areas of interest using historical records, maps, satellite imagery, and existing archaeological data. They may collaborate with historians, archaeologists, and other experts to develop research plans and identify key objectives. 

    Fieldwork Preparation - Aerial archaeologists must plan their flights carefully before conducting aerial surveys or photography. This involves obtaining necessary permits, coordinating with pilots and aircraft operators, and ensuring that all equipment is in working order. 

    Aerial Surveys and Photography - Depending on the project, aerial archaeologists may spend time in aircraft or drones, conducting surveys and capturing high-resolution images of archaeological sites and landscapes. They use LiDAR, thermal imaging, and multispectral imaging techniques to reveal hidden features and structures. 

    Data Analysis and Interpretation - Aerial archaeologists analyze the data collected during fieldwork in the office or laboratory. This may involve processing images, creating maps and 3D models, and identifying archaeological features using specialized software. 

    Report Writing and Publication - Aerial archaeologists document their findings in detailed reports, which may be published in academic journals or presented at conferences. They also collaborate with colleagues to interpret their findings in the context of broader archaeological research. 

    Public Outreach and Education - Aerial archaeologists often engage in public outreach activities to raise awareness about their work and the importance of maintaining cultural heritage. This may include giving presentations, leading tours of archaeological sites, writing for a blog, and participating in community events. 

    Continued Learning and Professional Development - As with any field of research, aerial archaeologists must stay up-to-date with the latest developments in technology, methodology, and theory. They may attend workshops, conferences, and training courses to expand their skills and knowledge. 

    Overall, the life of an aerial archaeologist is dynamic and multifaceted, combining elements of fieldwork, research, analysis, and outreach to uncover and preserve the secrets of the past from above.

    Back to the Future

    Like with so many Aerial Work sectors, the future of Aerial Archaeology holds improving prospects, driven by advancements in technology, methodology, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

    Technology is leading the pack in advancing Aerial Archaeology. As technology rapidly evolves, aerial archaeologists will likely incorporate increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques into their work. This could include the widespread use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms to analyze aerial imagery and identify archaeological features more efficiently. 

    Along with this, continued improvements in remote sensing technologies such as LiDAR, hyperspectral imaging, and multispectral imaging will enable aerial archaeologists to capture even more detailed and comprehensive data from the air. This will facilitate the detection of subtle features and patterns that may have previously gone unnoticed. 

    Beyond the days of working independently, Aerial Archaeology is increasingly becoming a collaborative endeavor that brings together experts from various fields, such as archaeology, remote sensing, GIS (Geographic Information Systems), and aviation. This interdisciplinary approach will continue to enrich research methodologies and foster new insights into past human societies and landscapes. 

    Last but not least, Aerial Archaeology will help us understand how past societies adapted to environmental change. With the growing threat of climate change, aerial surveys may be crucial in monitoring and documenting archaeological sites at risk from rising sea levels, erosion, and other environmental challenges. 

    Overall, the future of aerial work in aviation Aerial Archaeology holds immense promise for uncovering new discoveries, preserving cultural heritage, and advancing our understanding of the past. Through innovative technologies and collaborative research initiatives, aerial archaeologists will continue to push the boundaries of exploration and discovery from the skies.


    As you can see, Aerial Archaeology, at the link of technology and heritage preservation, offers an interesting glimpse into the mysteries of our past from the sky. Through the use of aircraft, drones, and advanced remote sensing technologies, researchers unveil hidden landscapes, uncover ancient settlements, and decipher the stories of civilizations long forgotten. 

    Like in the past, aerial archaeology will continue to impact archaeological research, conservation efforts, and public engagement significantly. From the Nazca Lines of Peru to the sprawling ruins of Angkor Wat, Aerial Archaeology will help our understanding of human history, one flight at a time.

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