Israel embarks on challenge to find sensor tech to map archaeological sites

Israel Antiquities Authority seeks to deploy remote sensing as a standard tool in the archaeologist’s toolbox to discover ancient treasures

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

File: A site where a 1,600-year-old mosaic was uncovered during archaeological excavations in Yavne (Assaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
File: A site where a 1,600-year-old mosaic was uncovered during archaeological excavations in Yavne (Assaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Israel is embarking on a challenge to make the mapping of archaeological sites tech-savvy using remote underground sensor technology in a move to cut costs and resources used up by extensive excavation.

For this initiative, the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology and the Israel Antiquities Authority are calling on entrepreneurs and companies specializing in remote sensing technologies to present innovative and groundbreaking solutions for the preliminary underground mapping of archaeological remnants before excavation start.

The IAA announced on Monday that NIS 150,000 ($43,000) will be earmarked to cover the costs of three remote sensing technologies, which will be selected for the demonstration of their solutions tailored for locating and detecting ancient treasures beneath the surface without using a shovel.

“Israel is the first country in the world launching such an initiative,” stated IAA director Eli Eskosido. “Archaeologists in Israel and around the world use remote sensing technology from time to time, but this is the first time in the world that a country aims to include remote sensing as a standard tool in the archaeologist’s toolbox, as well as create a technology adapted to the specific needs of the field.”

The IAA is seeking tech-savvy non-intrusive solutions for archaeological projects to avoid digging up extensive excavation areas and thereby cutting the costs, time, and resources needed as well as mitigating the risk of environmental damage.

The initiative comes as the Israeli government and the IAA is trying to cope with a growing number of construction and development plans at archaeological sites all over the country. There are about 5,000 such projects a year leading to about 300 salvage excavations.

An undated photo of excavation work at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site near the Jordan River in northern Israel. (Courtesy/Tel Aviv University)

Historically, Israel’s knowhow in sensor technology has its origin in military applications for defense needs, putting smart sensors to work around borders and fences and on tanks, or for the Israeli Air Force, and making sense of the data using artificial intelligence and algorithms. Companies such as Elbit Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Seraphim Optronics have been at the forefront in this field.

In recent years, there has been a growing need for the deployment of sensor technology using image processing and algorithms in civilian industry in areas such as medical diagnostics and urban infrastructure.

“One of the main problems in archaeological excavations is identifying the layout of the remains in the subsoil, which will make it possible to define in advance the boundaries of the areas within which the excavation will be carried out,” said IAA’s chief scientist Prof. Gideon Avni.

Avni acknowledged that in the past 20 years, many attempts have been made to use remote sensing technologies to locate archaeological remains, but until now they failed to provide a viable solution that would be applicable for different types of soil, rock and topographical areas.

“These methods gained great momentum and were perfected in Israel as the defense establishment was dealing with the challenge of locating the Hamas [crossborder] underground tunnels,” Avni said.

The tech companies seeking to take part in the challenge have until February 12 to submit their sensor tech solutions. After that, eight companies will be chosen to make their pitch before a committee, which will pick the three technologies selected for doing demonstrations in March 2023.

“Innovation in archaeology is necessary in order to preserve our history while maintaining efficiency and speed in development and construction, for the benefit of the entire public,” said Hilla Haddad Chmelnik, director general of the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology.

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