Middle East

Jordan archaeologists use drones to combat looting

Archaeologists in Jordan are using drones in a bid to combat looting at a Bronze Age cemetery. (AAP)

Archaeologists in Jordan are using drones in a bid to combat looting at a Bronze Age cemetery in the country's south.

At a sprawling Bronze Age cemetery in southern Jordan, archaeologists have developed a unique way of peering into the murky world of antiquities looting - with aerial photographs taken by a homemade drone.

Based on such images, archaeologists try to follow the trail of stolen pots and other artefacts to traders and buyers. They hope to get a better understanding of the black market and perhaps stop future plunder.

It's sophisticated detective work that stretches from the site, not far from the famed Dead Sea in Jordan, to collectors and buyers the world over.

The aerial photography detects spots where new looting has taken place at the 5000-year-old Fifa graveyard, which can then sometimes be linked to Bronze Age pots turning up in shops of dealers, said Morag Kersel, an archaeologist at DePaul University in Chicago.

Kersel, who heads the Follow The Pots project, also shares the data with Jordan's Department of Antiquities, to combat looting.

On a recent morning, team members walked across ravaged graves, their boots crunching ancient bones, as a tiny, six-bladed flying robot buzzed overhead. In recent years, drone use in archaeology has become increasingly common, replacing blimps, kites and balloons in surveying hard-to-access dig sites, experts said.

Chad Hill, an archaeologist at the University of Connecticut who built the drone, piloted it over a part of the graveyard that had not been mapped yet. The drone snapped photographs that allowed Hill to see in great detail how looting altered the landscape.

"We can see the change through time, not just of 'a huge pit has been dug' but where different stones have moved," Hill said. "It's a level of resolution of spatial data collection that's never really been possible until the last couple of years."

The cemetery in Jordan's Dead Sea plain contains about 10,000 graves, part of the vast archaeological heritage of the region.

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