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Drone Survey unveils an undiscovered settlement

Last updated on

September 17, 2020


    Drone survey unveils signs of a previously undiscovered Native American settlement in Kansas

    A recent aerial drone survey utilising thermal cameras has led to some new discoveries and theories about Native American settlements in Kansas. A huge site has been discovered buried under cattle pasture in Kansas. While it is difficult to believe that such a massive archaeological site could lie undiscovered in the fields of Kansas for so many years, the drone survey operation has just unveiled signs of a huge settlement that may have been home to thousands of Native Americans before the arrival of the Spanish.

    The discovery supports several theories about Native American communities in this area. The aerial survey shows the remains of a broad ditch that encircled an area of around 2,000 square meters (21,000 square feet) overlooking the Walnut River – a massive operation that could not have been carried out without significant organisation, resource and many willing people to do the work.

    About the discovered settlement

    The recently discovered ditch has been greatly eroded over the course of 400 years, and is covered by grass and topsoil. However, the earthwork is visible in thermal imaging despite being almost completely invisible from above. The drones used in the survey were mounted with remote-sensing devices, which allowed them to identify the signs of the settlement beneath the surface of a cattle pasture, and to capture images of the earthworks.

    It is now believed by researchers in this specific area that the site may have been part of one of the biggest Native American settlements north of Mexico. Supporting the theory that settlement discoveries along the Walnut River actually come from a single, large concentration of people as opposed to smaller communities and remnants left behind but different peoples over the years.

    The use of drones and thermal technology in this project has demonstrated the importance of continuing to conduct research in the same areas using new method and technologies – it could lead to big discoveries such as this.

    Jesse Casana, the archaeologist from Dartmouth College who directed the drone survey said:

    “Our findings demonstrate that undiscovered monumental earthworks may still exist in the Great Plains, you just need a different archaeological approach to recognize them.”

    The earthwork recently discovered by the drone survey forms part of a group of archaeological sites in this area of Kansas, which it is believed was once home to the Wichita people’s ancestors. The sites have been abandoned for centuries, with most of the area being taken over by farms and cattle pasture areas. However, this new evidence suggests that the area may have been Etzanoa. Etzanoa meaning the “Great Settlement” was described by the conquistador Juan de Oñate when he marched through the area with his troops in 1601.

    Donald Blakeslee, an anthropological archaeologist from Wichita State University said: “We apparently have located the sixth council circle and the only one that has not been disturbed,”

    Drone Survey and Native Americans

    The role of drones in this discovery

    When making the decision to conduct an aerial survey using drones, Blakeslee took inspiration from an archaeologist’s publications from more than 60 years ago. The archaeologist had excavated at the same site with the suspicion that it had been a crucial part of Etzanoa. Blakeslee has been excavating sites all along the Walnut River, filling in the gaps between the sites of the Wichita ancestors. He says that it is likely that Etzanoa was a single community, spread out over numerous sites. However, upstream from Etzanoa, there is evidence of a separate Wichita town of around three kilometres in length.

    Blakeslee oversaw an excavation between 2015 and 2019 at the cattle ranch of the House family in southeastern Kansas. The excavation uncovered numerous ancestral Wichita objects including cooking utensils, stone tools and 17th-century Spanish items such as bullets and a horseshoe nail. The discovery of these items supported Spanish documents which detailed the 1601 expedition through Wichita territory, leading to the designation of the site as Etzanoa in 2017.

    These artefact discoveries directly led to the recent drone survey. Casana, who oversaw the aerial survey across the cattle pasture suspected that ancient structures in this area had likely suffered only minimal damage. With specialist equipment mounted on drones, the archaeologists were able to measure heat and radiation differences in the area to identify buried structures.

    The earthwork that lay underneath the House ranch, was at the highest point of the property and overlooking the valley of the river. Casana’s team noted that the other circular earthworks of the Wichita and neighbouring groups were typically built on elevated points.

    Furthermore, the drone imagery identified two pits dug in at each end of the structure. It is believed that those who constructed the earthwork, may have used soil from these pits to build mounds within the borders of the semicircular structure. This has been previously observed in other excavation sites in this region.

    The plan for Blaeslee and his team is to further explore the underground features of this site. The team will utilise remote sensing techniques before excavations begin, allowing them to target the earthwork and its surrounding remains with precision. Utilising these remote methods can also increase the likelihood of uncovering materials that may be suitable for radiocarbon dating, which will allow scientists to determine the age of the earthworks.

    Drone in Surveying

    What were the earthworks used for?

    The drone imagery alone cannot determine precisely the purpose of the earthworks. However, when coupled with previous excavation discoveries of items such as seashells, items made of obsidian and other exotic materials in similar circles, it is believed that they were used for rituals of some sort. Susan Vehik, an archaeologist from the University of Oklahoma said that for now, the drone images are an ‘intriguing mystery’.

    Douglas Bamforth of the University of Colorado Boulder, did not participate in the recent survey but commented that such aerial drone surveys “can truly transform our ability to locate sites and map important features where huge areas have been ploughed and surface traces of houses and ditches are often close to invisible”.

    Drones offer a new way to discover old structures

    If you were to look at the site of the bluff, it is flat and gently sloping. You would never have guessed that a 2 metre wide ditch would have encircled a large settlement area. Centuries of erosion have disguised the ditch, filling it with soil and the low mound that may have stood in the middle has gradually disappeared.

    However, the soil that fills the ditch is packed more loosely than that of the ground surrounding it. As a result, the loosely packed ditch holds more water and will radiate less heat. Casana and his team flew a drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera, which could then identify the buried ditch, as it stood out as being cooler in the warmer ground. In the images captured by the drone, the ditch is identified as a dark ring. However, only around two-thirds of the original earthworks circle is still intact. The downward side of the slope has been eroded more than the rest and may now be buried too far to be identified by thermal imaging.

    In aerial photos, structures that have been buried such as walls, ditches and foundations typically stand out because grass and groups tend to grow taller and greener in areas of looser soil, and shorter and less plush over areas where there may be buried walls or roads. However, the angle of the sun or weather conditions over the year can hide these distinct featured. Cassandra highlighted that is probably why the newly discovered circle only appears in a few photos taken over the last decade. The discovery highlights why looking beyond the visible spectrum of light is essential to make new discoveries about the past. He said:

    “Our discovery also serves as a powerful reminder that many archaeological features are likely preserved in the modern landscape that can only be recognized by employing appropriate technologies at large spatial scales,”

    In order to take advantage of thermal imaging technology, Cassandra’s team of archaeologists used a 3DR Solo quadcopter, and flew the drone across an area of Kansas that is around 18-hectares. The sensors were then able to accurately measure the level of heat radiating from the soil, as opposed to the heat that would be reflected from the surface of the ground during the day. The team then followed up this process by conducting early morning flights that would allow them to capture optimum images in terms of visibility, and then mid-day flights in order to collect infrared images of the sight.


    What can the drone discovery tell us about these communities?

    The find provokes important questions about why people built these ditches encircling certain areas, and how were the spaces inside them used?

    As discussed above, previous discoveries of items that would have been imported luxuries such as those made of obsidian, copper, shells and turquoise indicate that the encircled spaces may have belonged to the powerful or wealthy members of the community. Specifically religious leaders, political leaders or warriors. However, the sites may also have been ceremonial.

    On the other hand, it is possible that the ditch may have been more of a practicality. Some historical documents detail walls of wooden stakes or palisades, that would surround large Wichita settlements. As is typical for archaeological discoveries, only further excavation and evidence can prove any of these theories.

    What the earthworks do tell us though is that large, organised communities existed in Kansas around 400 to 600 years ago. It is important to understand that digging a 2-metre wide ditch around an area of 2,000-square-metres is a massive project. Such a project requires resources, people and organisation. As a result, the ditch itself supports the idea that all of the sites along the Walnut River were not independent communities or remnants of different peoples at different times, but in fact part of a larger concentration of people. Furthermore, this also supports the idea that the people clustered along the Walnut River belonged to Etzanoa. Etzanoa was a large settlement that was frequently described by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1590s -1600s.

    A 1590 expedition in search of a ‘city of gold’ known as Quivira – not believed to be in central Kansas – ended violently. The sole survivor of the expedition was an indigenous man from Mexico, who described “a large settlement extending for many miles along a river, with houses built of grass roofs closely spaced together and surrounded by agricultural fields,” – as detailed by Casana and his colleagues.

    City of Gold

    Drones for good

    We routinely feature stories about drones for good on our blog. From providing valuable assistance to the agriculture industry, to the exciting work carried out by drones in making archaeological discoveries that support scientific and historic theories. The role drones and technology play in helping communities, advancing archaeology and telling us more about the history of our world cannot be understated. The advancement of drone technology and increased drone use is important in meeting the challenges of today’s world, and helping us to do more than ever before. We can help you find the right drone to push boundaries.

    And one of our partners is doing exactly this.  Read how Historic England are using drones here.

    Ready to make the most of drones? 

    If you have been inspired by this story to utilise drone technology to meet the needs of a project, get in contact with us today.

    We can advise on the best drone models for your needs and circumstances. We help a broad range of customers from a wide variety of backgrounds including archaeology, surveying, geotechnical, agriculture, architectural services and environmental projects. We are passionate about drones and we are always happy to hear about new and innovative projects.

    A related article – How drone technology is being used in Archaeology  

    Drones and Archeology


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