Remote Sensing & Visualization Specialist
Dr. Meg Watters
After studying Classics as an undergraduate, Meg first encountered a Ground Penetrating Radar system while working on the island of Santorini in Greece. Returning after that field season, Meg has since focused on applying remote sensing techniques to help solve archaeological problems. During and after degrees in GIS & Remote Sensing in Archaeology at Boston University (MA) and in New Methods for Archaeo-Geophysical Data Visualization at the University of Birmingham, UK (PhD) Meg spent time working in Cultural Resource Management, the geo-technical industry at ground penetrating radar manufacturer Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc., and helped build the IBM Visual and Spatial Technology Centre, providing geophysical surveys expertise and pursuing her PhD on integrated 3D (surface and sub-surface) archaeological landscape visualization.
Meg specializes in 3D visualization of remotely sensed and excavated data for a new perspective on non-invasive modeling and analysis of archaeological sites. She focuses on archaeological landscape visualization and development of technological applications to help solve archaeological problems and for site preservation and planning. While most of her work is with remote sensing applications in archaeology, Meg has worked with a number of television productions including National Geographic, Discovery Channel, PBS, and the BBC. Meg has participated in archaeological research around the world including the Mediterranean, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, the UK, Spain, Peru, Mexico, and the USA.
What is your favorite thing about working on Time Team America?
Working with TTA we get to visit different sites, work with great teams of archaeologists and volunteers, and learn about the people that lived in North North America over thousands of years in the past. With my role in remote sensing survey I see each site as a challenge, what can I map (and how) and how will it contribute not only to the TTA program, but to the long term archaeological investigations of the historic or ancient landscape we are working on.
What does Time Team America mean to you?
Friendship. The first word that comes to mind, the cast and crew of TTA are a great group of people, not only good friends now, but also very impressive ‘experts’ each and every one of them from the archaeologists, to the directors, film crew, and production team.
The second series of TTA, funded entirely by a NSF Informal Education Grant is pretty significant to me. This shows that at a National level, we have been chosen and trusted to put together a great program, entertaining and educational, through which we can share not only the archaeological experience of discovery, synthesis of information, and learning new things about our past; but also a way we can help our viewers (national and international!) learn about the people that used to live here, who they were and what they did.
What do you hope is the take away for viewers of Time Team America?
New ideas. Excitement. Inspiration. TTA is a program about archaeology, discovering new information about our past. But it is also a program that shows a broad variety of the different jobs that archaeologists do, the technical things that I do, the excavating and finds analyses that Chelsea does, Mick and the dendrochronology. We each offer different perspectives and skills to the program, this is the field of archaeology. I hope that people, and in particular, kids in middle and high school, see our excitement and how much we love doing our jobs and are inspired to pick something they love to pursue. I would vote for all things technical! (of course Chelsea and her trowel may have something to say about that ;)
In high-school, you were voted most likely to….?
I don’t think I was voted anything. I was pretty independent, had a bunch of different friends, into music (‘bando’ into marching band – flute/piccolo and was the drum major my senior year and orchestra – violin), and dated the proverbial ‘jock’. So, I liked to mix things up.
If you could be anyone from the past, who would it be and why?
Judi Dench. Seriously, I love her. But she is not yet in the past.
What was the most challenging obstacle that you overcame to become an archaeologist?
Passing my comprehensive exams in my MA program. Had to go through it twice. Mind you, geophysical survey and GIS was not a main stream archaeology program (it can be found today in a select number of programs across the US, but is not very common…). I lucked out to be at Boston University when Ken Kvamme was there, I kept dragging the Geology department’s ground penetrating radar out to our sites while Ken built a resistivity rig and we carted around an old caesium vapor magnetometer. Everything was recorded by hand (except the GPR, which scratched out a radar gram on thermal paper scrolls…).
Learning to use a computer. I was living and working in Greece (excavated in the Agora then as an English teacher in Thessaloniki) when I ran into GPR on Santorini, straight home and to BU for my MA. But, I had not really used a computer (I didn’t have a telephone in Greece, this was pre mobile-phone days too…). Imagine starting your first GIS class (pre-windows DOS based GRASS program…) with no knowledge of computers. My first lab all I could do was turn on the computer (after about 15 min…) and I failed to start the GIS program GRASS, just sat staring at the screen. It was a nearly vertical uphill battle, but thanks to another first year student, Will D’Amato (who acted as my personal tutor), I survived.
What is a day in the life like for you?
In the field: Up early, like to be on site just as it is getting light (you see, light limits the amount of time we have to collect data, I have been on site with flashlights and headlights from my car, but it is tough to keep your pace when you can’t really see where you are going!). I work with my team on setting up our grids and getting data collection going. When I am working with TTA, I have a bunch of jobs and barely get to collect data, so I have to depend on Team Geophysics, Bryan and Duncan who do the majority of the data capture and processing with the geophysical surveys (they do an amazing job!!).
Instead of collecting data I am talking with the site archaeologists (our hosts), the TTA team, and the camera. My job is to interpret our geophysical (and other remote sensing data) survey results and merge that with the archaeological information about the site I have gotten from talking with the site archaeologists, reading papers, maps, and other materials about the site and it’s occupation history. This is a pretty organic process, I really lean on the site archaeologists to help me with the interpretations so we all understand what is, or may be, going on at the site.
Next, the pressure is on! I can’t tell you how many times I have heard “So, where should we dig Meg?” While it is great having some insight to where we should put our trenches, it is somewhat terrifying doing it so quickly (the turnaround time on the geophysical surveys ranges from a day to just minutes…), I have to be able to think on my feet, multi-task, and make informed and smart decisions in an instant. Fortunately, my experience working at so many different sites around the world has prepared me for these moments; I can communicate with people and with the help of Bryan and Duncan, interpret the geophysical data pretty well.
I tend to tank up on coffee early in the day, learning from our sage producer/director Bruce Barrow that a double (for me, he has a triple!) tall latte is a fundamental food group for breakfast. By lunch time, Bryan and Duncan are downloading and processing the data they collected in the morning, I am talking with site archaeologists, TTA team, and the TV directors about what happened in the morning, what did they find in their excavation units thus far, how this relates to the geophysical survey maps in my head (I am a very visual person, my mom says I had something similar to photographic memory when I was young.) Then I sit with Bryan and Duncan and integrate the data they are producing from the morning to our GIS project (we have one for each site) then I sit and try to think about the new information I see, how it relates to previous surveys and where we are excavating, additional locations for excavations, and where we should continue with data collection with the geophysical surveys. Then I talk with the directors about how the filming is going (of the excavations), what they need, what I see in the data and my recommendations on where we might be able to place new excavation units in order to target potential buried archaeological features that will reveal new information to contribute to our investigations.
A good number of times, distracted by getting this all done over lunch, I was grateful to the production team, as they served as my (and many times Bryan and Duncan’s) personal wait staff, taking my lunch order and delivering it to our work area so we could fuel up for the afternoon…
The afternoon continues with Team Geophysics collecting data, or mapping out potential excavation locations. I continue to communicate with everyone about the site, what is coming out of the excavation units, new geophysical survey results, and do my work with the rest of the TTA team on camera discussing what we are doing, finding, and why.
At the close of the day, or should I say, when filming ends, we finish up with the geophysical surveys (most times we are the last people at the site…), pack up the gear and head back to the hotel. We clean up, grab dinner and typically a cold beverage (Duncan is a star, he knows all of the best local breweries in any town we might be visiting!), then we begin the second part of our day, data download, processing, integration into the GIS and interpretation. Team Geophysics works well into the night on this, generally we go to sleep anywhere from 1:00am to 3:00am depending on what is happening with the data.
My final thoughts of the night as I lay in bed review the geophysical work that we have done to this point and what it tells us, results from the excavations to this point, and what we can do the next day to really focus on the research goals we set at the beginning of the program. Typically, I don’t sleep well as I am thinking about data and have that completely unrealistic fear that my alarm won’t go off in the morning and I’ll be late to the field…
There is no “casual Friday” in your work, so do you dress up on the weekends?
I love to dress up, but I save it for date nights with my husband!
After a long day at work you…?
Process and interpret data while generally sipping a cool beverage.
Your ideal dig would include…?
Time. Challenges. Interesting students. Team Geophysics and my husband doing terrestrial LiDAR surveys.
What does it take to do what you do? I mean, it’s a seriously dirty hot mess out there with the bugs, critters, traveling to remote places, and now cameras!?!
Passion, enthusiasm, curiosity, determination. That and being a Girl Scout for my entire life. Before I was born, I spent time in a sleeping bag in a tent somewhere… I am a 4th generation (and my daughter a 5th!!) Girl Scout. Camping and canoe trips, primitive living without toilets/showers/electricity/civilization (shock!!) is fantastic. The skills I learned and the ease to adapt to any environment I might be in comes in handy (mind you, the Mena House Hotel in Cairo is also an excellent environment to find yourself in, cocktail in hand as you float in the pool gazing at the Giza pyramids…). Among my favorite expeditions were trips to the Baja peninsula (Mexico) and the Andes in Peru where we camped for over a week. And, don’t forget… all of my gear depends on electricity to run, so think of the batteries, solar panels, generators and additional complications that might add!