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Archaeologists in Peru add drones to their list of tools

January 6, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
In Peru, drones are keeping a watchful eye on some ancient cultural sites endangered by encroaching development or other perils. In our Culture at Risk series, Jeffrey Brown reports on how archaeologists and government officials are using the new technology to protect the country’s heritage from above.
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GWEN IFILL: Drones, we hear more and more about them, in uses that run from the dangerous to the fanciful.

In the last of his reports from a recent trip to Peru, Jeffrey Brown looks at a new, unlikely use of drone technology. It’s part of his ongoing series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Archaeology, the study of human history, the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t use the latest technology to achieve stunning images like these.

It’s happening here in Peru, where Deputy Culture Minister Luis Jaime Castillo is overseeing pioneering work, using drones to protect ancient heritage.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO, Deputy Culture Minister, Peru: These are only tools, means to an end, you know? The end is to preserve our cultural patrimony and whatever we can deploy to achieve that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but they’re tools that require a certain, I don’t know, technological know-how, a certain geekiness, right, to get into them?

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO: But if you’re going to be an archaeologist, and you’re not really a geek, I mean, you are in the wrong field.

JEFFREY BROWN: Machu Picchu is Peru’s best-known wonder, but the country is home to thousands of sites, large and small, 100,000 by one count, a rich terrain of history and culture long before and well after the arrival of the Spanish.

Their protection is a major project and problem, especially as cities expand and populations explode. That’s what’s happening here at Pachacamac, a huge complex that for more than 1,000 years served as a religious center, home to an oracle consulted by leaders of several pre-Colombian Indian groups, including the Incas.

Sitting above the Pacific Ocean, Pachacamac is some 20 miles outside Lima, or at least it used to be.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO: This is ground zero for the defense of archaeological patrimony.

JEFFREY BROWN: When Luis Jaime Castillo was a boy, he says, this was considered way outside the city, but no more.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO: Now we have a wave of 10 million people that needs to grow, that needs services, that needs housing. And what used to be, 30 years ago, a shantytown that was pushing and pushing the site now is settling into a very modern, very vibrant, economically very important sector of Lima, and, of course, in need of more space.

JEFFREY BROWN: That means bumping right up next to and in some cases onto ancient temples and palaces.

Archaeological work at Pachacamac still requires old-fashioned tools, spades, brushes and dustpans, here to carefully dig up human remains. But on the day of our visit, the ministry was also using something slightly more sophisticated, a new drone called the S1000, an octocopter outfitted with a high-definition swivel camera.

After takeoff, an operator manned the drone, while another monitored the camera, capturing video and photos of a palace owned by the last ruler of Pachacamac before the Spanish came, and of the nearby town just over the wall.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO: We’re finding out that — a funny thing, but the best pilots are not engineers or archaeologists. They’re our drivers. If you can drive in Lima, you can fly a drone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Boys with toys, there’s certainly an element of that here. But there’s also a very serious side to all this.

Back in a nondescript office at the Culture Ministry in downtown Lima, the hundreds of photographs shot by the drone are uploaded into advanced imaging software and, just hours after being shot, look like this: a 3-D model and map that show precise boundaries, like a blueprint, incredibly accurate.

And these can be and are used in court as legal documents to evict developers and squatters who build on protected lands.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO: If you’re going to map something that has property around it, you better be precise to the 10th of the inch, because, otherwise, your neighbor is going to come and say, this is my property.

JEFFREY BROWN: My property. As we showed in a previous report, the Peruvian government dispatched a drone recently to document damage to its famous Nazca Lines, allegedly caused by activists from Greenpeace during a climate change protest.

Still another use of drones is for conservation. At Chan Chan, once the largest adobe city in the world, the drones’ mission was to document the state of restoration and decay ahead of El Nino storms that have wrought havoc in the past and are anticipated to hit again this winter.

LUIS JAIME CASTILLO: We have to have the before and the after. If there’s any damage, we need to go — go back. and that — we need to have a record of what was there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The hope now, funds permitting, is to build up this newfangled air force throughout the country, placing at least one large drone in each of Peru’s 24 regions to watch over its archaeological heritage from above.

It’s part toy, part high-tech research. The very old meets the quite new.

I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour” here in the Chan Chan archaeological site in Northern Peru.

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