How drones are helping unearth the past on the Northern Peninsula

It's definitely more technologically advanced than using a ladder to get a bird's-eye view.

'The [drones] give us that eye in the sky but they do so much more than that'

Marc Bolli and Amanda Crompton show off the drones they are using to learn more about life on the Northern Peninsula centuries ago. (Memorial University)

There is a new, tech-savvy tool playing an important part in helping archaeologists learn about the past — including what life was like on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula centuries ago.

Drones are replacing ladders to get that bird's-eye view of former settlements, an advance welcomed by Marc Bolli, an IT manager with Core Research Equipment and Instrument Training.

"The ladder is pretty good, but when you have larger sites it's hard to move that ladder quickly," he told CBC Radio's On The Go, laughing.

"The [drones] give us that eye in the sky but they do so much more than that. Because we can take the imagery … and we can turn those into 3D models and things we call digital elevation models."

This has the potential to really revolutionize not just how we look at archeological sites but how we look for them, too.- Amanda Crompton

Bolli and Dr. Amanda Crompton, an adjunct faculty member of the Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Memorial University, have been scouring the land just south of St. Anthony most recently and have come across former French fishing settlements. 

"We know that the French fished in Newfoundland until 1904, so we are probably seeing sort of late-19th-century developments," said Crompton, noting some of the sites date back even earlier, likely to the 16th century.

This is some of the drone footage that's helping Crompton and Bolli map the past. (Submitted)

Clues to past life

Crompton says it's the tiny differences in landscape that can ultimately lead to a big reveal.

"We're looking for those minute changes in topography … perhaps 10- to 20-centimetre changes in topography, small humps and bumps in the ground, which you cant see from an air photo or from Google Earth, really," she said. 

"We are also looking for changes in vegetation because of course after people modify the earth by digging into it or enrich the soils by discarding garbage  … that changes the chemical composition of the soil. It enriches it. And so therefore the plants that grow over top of these now abandoned sites also tell us something."

Looking for former settlements just south of St. Anthony does have its benefits, including a beautiful view. (Marc Bolli)

The data collected in this province isn't staying here, however. Crompton is heading to Berlin next month, after being awarded a fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She will analyze and document the information gathered over the last several months.

Bolli said analyzing the data is not a quick process. 

"To take one batch of data from one flight, it might take upwards of 29 hours to actually turn that into a usable data set where you can actually look at the model," he said.

Rules and nature

And using drones is not without its challenges, said Bolli, including ensuring they adhere to Transport Canada regulations.

"Being able to use them is sometimes a bit of a challenge in our area because of the wind, the salt, and being close to the ocean, so it affords one some unique experiences flying these things," he said.

But, Crompton said, drones are worth it.

"I think this is a really significant shift in that this is allowing us to acquire a perspective on landscapes in a way that's rapidly repeatable, using equipment that's only recently become affordable to the average researcher," she said.

"This has the potential to really revolutionize not just how we look at archeological sites but how we look for them, too."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

With files from On The Go