facebook twitter twitter

Under the Radar: Unearthing History with Physics

Written by Melissa Dellacato

Kevin Hurley 11 uses a ground-penetrating radar at Old Fort Johnson. Photo courtesy Bodhi Rogers.

Old Fort Johnson was built in 1749 to defend the New York colony with gun ports in the walls and cannons that shot through windows in the attic. 

A drawing of the site from the 1700s depicted the house as it stands today, with the addition of two buildings to the right of it. A footnote on the drawing read: “And the left side is the same.” 

But Michael “Bodhi” Rogers started to wonder. Were those buildings really there? 

Rogers, an associate professor of physics at Ithaca College, researches and investigates historical sites like this with the help of his students. He has explored archaeological sites such as American Revolutionary War battlefields and Native American sites in Central New York.

Rogers and his students started working on the Old Fort Johnson project four years ago. They use ground-penetrating radar––which sends a radio wave into the ground to determine the depth and material of underground objects––and magnetometry, the measurement of the Earth’s magnetic field, to survey the front yard. 

“We were able to identify the location of the two buildings that were in the drawing, so we have confirmation that those two buildings did exist,” Rogers said. “But interestingly, there’s no comparable signal on the other side, so our evidence suggests they never built those buildings.”

This is just one of many collaborations Rogers does with students. Every summer, the professor hires several students in 10-week paid research positions. Students learn how projects are planned, how to work in a close team environment, and how data are gathered and interpreted.

Bodhi Rogers and his students at work in Cyprus 

Sometimes the projects are student driven, such as building a device to charge batteries using a compost pile. Others involve working with Rogers on his research. Either way, students get exposed to many tools and learn software to process and visualize the data. 

Rogers has even taken students internationally to conduct research. For example, in 2008, seven IC physics students traveled to Cyprus, an island in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

The site was approximately 3,000 years old. Unlike other Mediterranean islands, Cyprus made an immediate transition between village life and urban environments. 

“That transition is interesting because it happened pretty quickly,” Rogers said. “So our team was using radar and magnetometry to look at what was below the ground at two sites, trying to map the very remains of the urban environment.”

More recently, Rogers and two IC students completed a 3D laser scan of President Lincoln’s cottage, where the Emancipation Proclamation was written. Since 2008, the cottage has been open to the public for visits. Now, the cottage can enter the digital world.

“We’re focusing on 3D laser scanning as part of building a preservation model for the facility,” Rogers said. “We’re hoping by the end of the summer to have a model up online that people can go in and walk around inside President Lincoln’s cottage.”

Learn more about the 3-D laser scanning of the Lincoln Cottage in this video by the Washington Post.

Laser scanning allows for an accurate analysis of a structure by creating a precise, digital copy. The team also used a high-tech camera to take a precise panoramic visual photograph. They spent two years practicing and getting familiar with the software before applying their knowledge.

“The experience at D.C. was amazing,” said Evan Van de Wall ’16, who was part of the team that scanned Lincoln’s cottage. “It provided a hands-on experience that is hard to get anywhere else.”

Over spring break of this year, Rogers and five physics majors traveled to Las Vegas to visit an archeological site that was occupied by Native Americans about 2,000 years ago. In 2006, pits were discovered where they had stored food. However, there was no evidence of anyone living there. The goal of the trip was to map the entire site. 

Using radar, the team found signals that resembled what could have been a pit-house, and an excavation team on site confirmed this the following day. 

“For our team, this was really exciting because within two days of work we identified a house at the site, which now changes our understanding of it,” he said.

Rogers said there are many interesting upcoming projects for students to get involved in, including scanning more high profile historic buildings and identifying unmarked burials in historic graveyards. 

“[Roger’s] passion is infectious,” said Nathan Antonacci ’16, a student who works with Rogers and uses the 3D scanner. “After completing the introductory class, I realized that I loved physics … It’s about problem-solving in real life. That intellectual challenge is exactly what I was looking for in my college experience.”



Are you a prospective student with college planning questions? Then myIthaca has got you covered.

Sign-Up Learn More
Copyright ©Ithaca College. All rights reserved.

Fuse is a student produced publication about the Ithaca College experience. All content in the print and web versions of Fuse is developed by current Ithaca College students in a breadth of different areas of study.