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Archaeology project takes on a human rights dimension

A public-education project that started with animal bones evolves into forensic research that could help locate mass human graves from the air.


Two years have passed since Andre Costopoulos, an associate professor of anthropology at McGill University, first set foot in Parc Safari, charged with the task of uncovering and reassembling the remains of a buried elephant.

What then promised to be a small public-education project at a Quebec zoo has since developed in remarkable ways, burgeoning into a forensic research project with a human rights dimension.

The original project started when the zoo, an hour’s drive from Montreal, contacted McGill for help in recovering some animal remains buried on the property. It wanted to put the skeletons on display. Dr. Costopoulos readily undertook the project, viewing it as an excellent opportunity for students in his archaeology field studies course.

Soon after Dr. Costopoulos began working on the project in 2008, McGill recruited Margaret Kalacska, now an assistant professor of geography at the university. Dr. Kalacska had already started investigating the possibility of using advanced aerial imaging to locate mass human graves while on a research expedition to Costa Rica in 2005, and she was keen to continue this research at McGill.

Dr. Costopoulos’s Parc Safari project presented Dr. Kalacska with an intriguing experimental situation for her research: besides a buried elephant corpse, the tourist destination had a 40-year-old pet cemetery and several other lost animal-burial sites scattered around the property. Dr. Kalacska realized that by experimenting at Parc Safari, she would be able to test methods that could be used to locate mass human graves such as those found in Rwanda or Bosnia.

“She got in touch with me and we started working together,” says Dr. Costopoulos. “Almost overnight, the Parc Safari project acquired a human rights dimension that I had never expected.”

This collaboration has since grown into a multidisciplinary research project known as Clandestine Burial Detection. Initially comprised of faculty members in the departments of anthropology and geography, it now includes members of the law faculty, too. The law professors are examining how burial detection technology and the methods the team develops could be used in an international context, for example, in war crime tribunals.

The technology used by the Parc Safari team falls under the broad category of hyperspectral remote sensing, where aircraft-mounted sensors are used to detect minute variations in the intensity of light reflected by the ground.

“You can think of the data we collect as a stack of photographs,” explains Dr. Kalacska. “Each photograph shows a specific, very narrow range of wavelengths of light. When we combine these photographs, we end up with an image cube that gives very detailed information on how much sunlight is reflected by each part of the ground.”

Analysis of this reflected light is important in identifying areas of ground that may contain graves because decomposing remains chemically modify the surrounding soil. This in turn modifies the vegetation that grows in the soil. “We’ve found that plants growing on a grave have more photosynthetic pigments,” says Dr. Kalacska. “This alters how they reflect sunlight back to the sensor.”

While the idea of using hyperspectral remote sensing to find buried objects is not original, the team is breaking new ground by refining the technique for a specific purpose. This refinement has led to encouraging discoveries, such as a degree of consistency between findings at Parc Safari and those at the team’s new experimental site in Costa Rica. Adding another site was “really important,” explains Dr. Kalacska. “If every site behaved differently, then there would be no way of developing a methodology that’s going to be reliable in every location.”

These commonalities have allowed the team to develop an initial predictive model; the next step is to test this model in a setting that contains human burials. Based on these findings, the team members will return to either Parc Safari or Costa Rica to continue refining their techniques.

Dr. Costopoulos hopes that a deeper understanding of hyperspectral remote sensing could also make a significant impact in the field of archaeology. “A lot of archaeology consists of looking for needles in haystacks,” he explains. “If I can use this method to reliably and systematically identify things other than mass graves, such as a seal hunting camp or a pottery workshop, that’s a big archaeological advance.”

While the original project to excavate an elephant’s remains made a significant social contribution through public education, the new human rights dimension means this contribution has been magnified many times over, says Dr. Costopoulos.

Meanwhile, the zoo directors are also pleased to be involved in such an important project. “The way in which the research has developed is very interesting,” says Parc Safari’s zoological director, Patrice Deneault. “We’re proud to be a part of such cutting-edge research.”

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