Shovels, trowels, and… satellites? Interview with Francesc C. Conesa

What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Cambridge and why?

Network. After being in Cambridge for a while, you realise that the entire Oxbridge system (i.e. the University, the Colleges, the vibrant seminars and events, and much of the social life) focuses on enhancing academic networking. This phenomenon makes Cambridge such a unique place. It’s a relatively small town, where everything is at a close walking or riding distance. Still, it has a high density of remarkable scholars from every academic field, coupled with large admin teams that make sure everything runs smoothly. Cambridge’s networking nature is well-illustrated in its many social events. Everyone asks you “what’s your field of study?” and they will quickly start looking for possible connections, however remote they may seem. Of course, the best ideas always occur when some wine is involved!

What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge?

I conducted my doctoral studies within the North Gujarat Archaeological Project, a joint initiative between the National Spanish Research Council and the University of Baroda in India. My PhD focused on combining satellite imagery and geoarchaeological proxies to better understand settlement patterns, long-term land use, and the creation of cultural soilscapes in monsoonal drylands. Much of my research focused on archaeological contexts from the Indus Civilisation (c. 3300-1300 BC). Our research group in Barcelona had close ties with the McDonald Institute and, in particular, with the Indus studies led by Dr Petrie’s team. Curiously, I first met Dr Petrie here in Cambridge back in 2010, when I was a MA visiting student at the Charles McBurney Laboratory for Geoarchaeology. After completion of my PhD (University of Barcelona, 2016), it made sense to apply for an MSCA-IF Fellowship with Dr Petrie, as an opportunity to expand my previous experience in Indus archaeological landscapes. Dr Petrie’s TwoRains project provided the ideal research environment, and the novel satellite-based work being developed by Dr Orengo offered a perfect scenario for the training objectives of the MSCA.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests?

I developed an early interest in geospatial technologies while surveying 18th-century battlefields in Catalonia. Back on the day, GIS platforms were mature enough to become an essential tool in landscape studies. The work of Dr Rubio-Campillo, and many others in Conflict Archaeology, inspired me to move towards a more spatial approach, through which I could integrate the long-term perspective for the study of cultural landscapes. I found myself enjoying very much when combining and studying relationships between newly acquired archaeological data and distinct geospatial datasets, such as historical maps (e.g. contemporary military maps showing the exact position of trenches!), aerial photographs and, ultimately, satellite imagery. This interest culminated in a PhD opportunity to study prehistoric landscapes in northwestern India,  and it is the essential component of the MSCA project MarginScapes.

Here at the McDonald Institute, we re-evaluated the archaeology and cultural heritage of the Cholistan Desert in Pakistan. This region was a core area for the development of the Indus Civilisation, as attested by the presence of several mounds and paleochannels. Together with Drs Orengo, Garcia-Molsosa, Green, and Petrie, we are developing new computational workflows for the automated detection of archaeological sites. We think BIG, as we use Big Earth Data (i.e. vast collections of multi-temporal and multi-sensor satellite imagery) to analyse large areas quickly and efficiently. This work is possible nowadays thanks to technological developments in data availability through cloud computing platforms, such as Google Earth Engine. This platform allows for the implementation of machine learning processes using thousands of imagery… within a few seconds or minutes!

In your opinion, what do satellites, statistics, and archaeology have in common?

Satellites (or any type of raster data), statistics, and archaeology are intrinsically linked! Archaeology is, above all, a spatial science. Archaeologists observe and analyse patterns that occurred at multiple temporal scales, from sudden events to processes that took thousands of years, and distinct spatial scales, from the micro-scale or molecular level to the regional or even a continental extent. Some of the patterns that shaped Earth’s surface, of anthropic or natural origin, can be easily seen in satellite or aerial imagery without much need for advanced processing. Some basic statistics and image processing can reveal hidden anomalies in a false-colour composite or using a spectral index, for example. Moving on from here, our analysis integrates multi-temporal series and imagery from distinct sources and sensors for more advanced image classifications. Once you move towards a more quantitative approach -and this means lots of geostatistics!- there is no turning back! In that sense, I’m happy to have participated, here in the McDonald Institute, in the inspiring discussions of the Computational and Digital Archaeology Laboratory (CDAL).

In your own experience, is Archaeology still perceived as a profession of diggers? Do you believe that newer advances in the discipline, such as remote sensing, are today sufficiently integrated into archaeological research to change that perception?

We are part of a profession of diggers, as this is what we ultimately do in the field to recover new data. But I agree that a broad public audience only sees this part with all its misconceptions and myths. Perceptions change fast, and I think we are on the right track to reach general audiences. Nowadays, many research institutions and groups invest more in science dissemination. Researchers are increasingly more concerned about the utility of communication tools such as blogs, gaming, or social media. I like everything that happens in the academic Twittersphere!

Remote sensing -or the aerial perspective, at least- has always been a fundamental part of archaeological research since the invention of photography. Moreover, everyone loves to explore their neighbourhood in Google Earth, right? The connection between remote analysis and the general public is there, and we now have the technology to access and share all this information. I’m particularly fond of Citizen Science and crowdsourcing initiatives. People can help us monitoring endangered cultural heritage, identify new crop marks, or detect hillforts, to name just a few examples. In turn, we can disseminate open geospatial data, including code and project results, in more engaging ways such as online platforms with interactive maps and apps.

Your MSCA project finished amidst the rapid escalation of Covid-19 in the early days of lockdown. What are your future plans?

Unfortunately, my project ended in late March, just some days after the initial lockdown. Closing a project requires tons of meetings and logistic mails. Initially, we’re all a little confused about the new scenario. The admin staff in the McDonald and the HSPS office reacted rapidly and efficiently, and I thank them for their effort in making everything very effortless. In April, I started a new research position funded by the Spanish IJC Programme at the Landscape Archaeology Research Group, Catalan Institute of Classical Archaeology, and have been working from home since then. Under the supervision of Dr Orengo, I will continue to work on Indus landscapes in Pakistan and India, still in close collaboration with the McDonald Institute. I will also join new remote-base explorations in other case studies such as the Roman Balearic Islands and Bronze Age Mongolia.

Finally, what do you do in your spare time, and how did you enjoy Cambridge life?

As if my remote-based studies were not enough, I like to spend some time looking at Google Maps and local topographical collections to map features of interest… I use that information to plan my outdoor activities, such as running and riding my mountain bike. I think that outdoor sports are much more enjoyable when you plan your own geocaching game!

Here in Cambridge, I enjoyed the River Cam on sunny days (hey, I earned my first kayak Star award) and the opportunity of being involved in college life at Peterhouse. The many open green areas were ideal for Bishop, our lovely Basset Hound. I also cycled every day until a bike accident ended with a broken wrist, but this didn’t stop me from riding again as soon as I recovered! Perhaps, if only, I missed a decent swimming pool in town -and the river doesn’t count-, although they told me that the University has plans to build a brand new one. All the same, what makes a place unique is the people you meet and interact with. I found myself in the most exceptional companion with the postdoc community at the McDonald Institute – and I will be back soon for our postponed farewell party!

Know more about Francesc’s work by visiting his institutional profiles in the Institut Català d’Arqueologia Clàssica and the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, or by following him on Twitter (@fc_conesa).

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