Airborne Archaeology


Katie McCusker of the Vulci 3000 team launches an Ebee drone during surveys in the summer of 2016. (Photo Credit: Duke Marine Lab UAS)

Between July 4th and July 8th, 2016, Everette “Rett” Newton of Duke’s Unoccupied Aerial Systems Facility collaborated with the Vulci 3000 project in an attempt to uncover artifacts from the ancient city.  Vulci 3000 is a program headed by Duke’s Dr. Maurizio Forte and Dr. Nevio Danelon. This multidisciplinary project aims to uncover information on the relationships between the city and its landscape and to shed some light on the organization of the hidden city’s urban center. Dr. Forte and his team hope this will help demystify Etruscan cities and reveal what Vulci was like as a “living city.”

Located just north of modern Rome, the city of Vulci was once amongst the wealthiest cities in the Etruscan civilization. As one of Etruria’s most prolific port cities, Vulci was one of 12 cities admitted into the legendary “Etruscan League”, an economic and political confederation amongst Etruscan cities that prospered for much of the 6th century BC. The Etruscan civilization was eventually assimilated into ancient Rome, and it is from the Etruscans that the Romans inherited many aspects of their now-famous culture — including their alphabet, religious rituals, and feats of hydraulic engineering.

One of the most striking artifacts uncovered at Vulci is the Cucumella, a large burial mound (or tumulus) which was first excavated in 1829. This massive monument, 50 feet high and 650 feet in circumference, has remained as enigmatic as the Etruscan society itself; it is still not known exactly who the massive tomb was constructed for. Vulci is also home to the famous François Tomb. Discovered in 1857 by Alessandro François, this tomb is regarded as one of the most important Etruscan ruins ever discovered. It is believed to have been constructed for Etruscan aristocrat Vel Satites and his family, and is known for its beautiful paintings — many of which have helped shed light on the mysterious Etruscan civilization. Yet even with these remarkable tombs, little else is known about the history of Vulci (or the Etruscan civilization itself).

Cucumella Tomb Area NIR

False color NIR orthomosaic image of Vulci plateau showing location of the circular Cucumella tomb. (Photo Credit: Duke Marine Lab UAS)


Cucmella NIR Image

False color NIR close-up image of the Cucumella tomb. (Photo Credit: Duke Marine Lab UAS)

The Vulci 3000 project seeks to change this. With the assistance of Rett and Duke’s UAS facilities, the archaeologists working on the project will be able to compliment age-old archaeological techniques with cutting edge drone technology.

Using an Ebee drone equipped with near-infrared and red edge cameras, Rett hopes to help archaeologists identify areas that have an increased likelihood of harboring artifacts. By flying these drones over the city, taking 2000 infrared and near-infrared photos, and stitching the photos together in a program known as “Pix4D,” patches of vegetation that are in “distress” can be identified. Rett posits that this “distress” is caused by the plants struggling to grow on weak soil that has formed over remnants of the ancient city. Drone technology is opening new doors in archaeology all over the world, and could be a key factor in understanding the mysterious Etruscan society.

You can read more about the collaboration between Vulci 3000 and the Duke Marine Lab Unoccupied Systems Facility in Duke Today.

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