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What Lies Beneath: A Physicist's Journey to Uncovering An Ancient Civilization

Written by Kevin Hurley '11
9/30/2011

Professor Rogers (far left) stands with the author (far right) and fellow researchers from IC, Cornell, and Brown.

When I tell friends about my archaeological expeditions to Cyprus, they picture the adventures of Indiana Jones. But mostly what Indy and I have in common are that we get to travel to exotic locales and wear wide-brimmed hats—it’s hot working out in that sun!

My friends also ask, “Aren’t you a physics major? What does archaeology have to do with physics?” In the most basic sense, the field of archaeogeophysics attempts to image and recover the history lost when centuries or even millennia—and many, many layers of sediment—have passed over a culture, all without the need for digging. The physics part comes into play with all the state-of-the-art instruments we use to see what’s going on underground: conductivity meters, ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers, and resistivity meters. Ithaca College happens to have one of the best-equipped archaeogeophysics laboratories in the country.

I had just finished my freshman year at IC when I went on my first research trip with physics professor Michael “Bodhi” Rogers to the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus. That 2008 trip was brutal. Cyprus was in the midst of a severe drought that limited our water supply, allowing us to shower only every other day. Not fun, considering the average temperature exceeded 100˚F and we were in the field for seven hours without much shade. But once we analyzed the data, we discovered the sweat was worth it—our instruments had detected evidence of a 3,500-year-old road and building!

Cyprus trip

 

Our primary objective for that first 10-day trip was to test if our equipment would be able to record the presence of subsurface objects in this remarkably different environment. After that successful mission, the team returned for a second 10-day field season in spring 2010. We worked in the same areas as before to see how changes in water content in the soil would affect the data.

You might not know much about Cyprus—it’s not like it shows up regularly in the news. But there’s evidence that in the Late Bronze Age, the tiny island of Cyprus shifted from an insular, village-based society to an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization with a growing importance in the trade and economic network of the region. Chemical testing of the Armana letters, a group of ancient tablets showing correspondence between the Egyptian pharaoh and the “King of Alashiya,” show that they originated from the present day southern Cyprus cities of Kalavasos and Maroni. These tablets indicate that Egypt and Cyprus had a “brother” relationship, meaning they were of the same social or political status.

How do I know all this? Because another cool aspect of this research (which is partially funded by the National Science Foundation) is that it’s a multidisciplinary collaboration. The Kalavasos and Maroni Built-Environments project (KAMBE for short) combines the expertise in Cypriot archaeology and architectural analysis from professors, grad students, and post-docs from Cornell and Brown Universities with the expertise in archaeogeophysics from IC.

This summer the KAMBE team went back for a five-week trip. We covered about 10 times more area, hoping to gather information on what a Late Bronze Age city might look like. We found many buildings between a large administrative building and the port village near Maroni, suggesting that these two previously excavated areas could be connected and are actually parts of a bigger settlement.

A field season scheduled for next summer may include excavating targeted areas to learn more about how elites expressed their power through architecture and control of space.

Most days after working in the hot sun, we’d head to a nearby beach to go swimming in the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. We’d also take a day off each week to explore the island. We drove westward to see the castle of King Richard III from when he conquered Cyprus during the Crusades. And we traveled to Petra tou Romiou, also known as Aphrodite’s Rock, the place where Aphrodite allegedly rose out of the waters when she was born. Many couples and tourists come to swim here because it is believed that if you swim around the rocks, you will be blessed with fertility.

The extensive research opportunities I had as an undergraduate at Ithaca—in Cyprus as well as sites in Las Vegas and multiple locations in the Northeast—have prepared me to become a successful researcher in my field, a chance I may not have had at a large university. And I’m sure they enhanced my application to the University of Bradford in England, the premier school in the world for archaeogeophysics, where I’m headed this fall to start graduate work.



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