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ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE DETECTION: THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTRAST

A. Beck

School of Computing, Leeds University, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK - arb@comp.leeds.ac.uk

This paper was presented at the 2007 Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society conference in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It has
been placed on Scribd because the on-line proceedings hosted at Newcastle University have been taken down. Please use the
following reference for this paper (note this is in Bibtex format):
@inbook{Beck_2007, title={Archaeological site detection: the importance of contrast},
url={http://whatevertheUrlOfTheScribdDocumentIs}, booktitle={Proceedings of the 2007 Annual Conference of the Remote
Sensing and Photogrammetry Society, Newcastle University}, year={2007}, pages={11–14}}
Or
Beck, A. R., Archaeological site detection: the importance of contrast. In Proceedings of the 2007 Annual Conference of the
Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society, Newcastle University, Sept. 11-14, 2007. Retrieved from
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KEY WORDS: archaeology, detection, contrast, multi-sensor, environment, framework

ABSTRACT:
In recent decades advances in sensor technology have led to a range of ground, airborne and spaceborne imaging instruments that
can be applied to archaeological and heritage management problems. However, the development of the techniques associated with
these technologies have evolved independently with variable understanding of the physical, chemical, biological and
environmental processes that determine whether archaeological residues will be identified in one or any sensor. The long-term
aim of this work is to update Crawford’s study of impacts on photographic return to take account of modern sensors and digital
image processing techniques. This paper is an initial attempt to bridge this gap and will consider archaeological residues as
perturbations to a surrounding matrix which must exhibit some contrast to that matrix in order to be detected.

1. INTRODUCTION management problems. However, the development of the


techniques associated with these technologies have evolved
1.1 Background independently with little understanding of the physical,
chemical, biological and environmental processes that
In the UK the practice of using remote sensing techniques for determine whether archaeological residues will be identified
detecting archaeological sites and visualizing archaeological in one or any sensor. Unfortunately, knowledge of which
landscapes has traditionally been based on low altitude aerial techniques will detect which components of the archaeological
photography using film sensitive at optical and sometimes domain and under what conditions has not fully permeated the
near infrared wavelengths. In the 1920s O. G. S. Crawford, the archaeological canon.
archaeological officer of the British Ordnance Survey,
demonstrated that archaeological structures could be identified The long-term aim of this work is to update Crawford’s study
from shadow, soil and crop markings on panchromatic aerial on photographic return factors to take account of modern
photography (see Figure 1). Since that time, both oblique and sensors and digital image processing techniques. This paper is
vertical aerial photography have been used extensively for an initial attempt to bridge this gap and will consider
archaeological reconnaissance and mapping all over the world archaeological residues as perturbations to a surrounding
(Donoghue, 1999). Early aerial photographers helped to refine matrix which must exhibit some contrast to that matrix in
the instruments and establish methods that are still in use order to be detected.
today. Crawford in particular established methods of site
classification and wrote about the effects of weather, season, 2. CONTRAST AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL
soil moisture and crop type on photographic return (Crawford, DETECTION
1923; Crawford, 1928; Crawford, 1929). Today, aerial
photography is accepted as a cost-effective, non-invasive The nature of archaeological residues and their relations with
technique for the reconnaissance and survey of monuments. the immediate matrix (or context) determine how easily they
can be identified. For example, it is relatively easy to visually
identify a feature which has been cut into chalk and then back-
filled with soil, whereas it can be much more difficult to
identify a feature which has been cut into soil and
immediately backfilled with the same soil. It is this very
contrast between an archaeological feature and its surrounding
matrix that one is hoping to identify when detecting the
presence or absence of an archaeological residue. This holds
at all levels of archaeological enquiry: when excavating a
Figure 1 Factors leading to the detection of crop, context a field archaeologists will distinguish between
shadow and soil marks different formation layers using different sensing techniques:
touch, colour and even taste (certain waste deposits can leave
In recent decades advances in sensor technology have led to a a salty residue).
range of ground, airborne and spaceborne imaging instruments
that can be applied to archaeological and heritage
The majority of the techniques used in archaeological factors that may impact upon contrast detection for different
detection rely on visual interpretation, although a number of residues with different sensors.
algorithms can be used to enhance contrast. Spectral
signatures have been used to accurately identify different 2.2 Sensing devices
vegetation and geology types with multispectral scanners.
Unfortunately archaeological sites do not exhibit spectral Sensors fall into two main categories: passive and active.
signatures that can be used for generic detection purposes Passive sensors are the most common form of sensor, and
(however, see Altaweel (2005) for use of spectral signatures in record naturally occurring radiation that is reflected or
a constrained environment). Rather, it is hypothesised that emitted. Active sensors bathe the terrain in artificial energy
archaeological residues produce localised contrasts in the and then record the amount scattered back to the sensor.
landscape matrix which can be detected using an appropriate
sensor under appropriate conditions. Although this statement The underlying premise of remote sensing is that interpreters
sounds self evident it requires an understanding of both the can extract information about objects and features by studying
nature of the residues and the landscape matrix within which the readings measured by a sensor system. However, every
they exist. sensor has limitations: most limitations are based on the
resolving characteristics, or resolution, of the sensor. Each
For the purposes of this discussion there are two types of remote sensing system has four major axes of resolution:
contrast measurement: 1. Spatial resolution.
1. Direct - where a measurement, which exhibits a 2. Aspect resolution 1.
detectable contrast with its surroundings, is taken 3. Radiometric resolution.
directly from an archaeological residue. 4. Temporal resolution.
2. Proxy - where a measurement, which exhibits a
detectable contrast with its surroundings, is taken Spatial resolution is dependent upon the resolving power of
indirectly from an archaeological residue (for the sensor, the distance from the object and the size of the
example from a crop mark). object to be identified. Many systems now represent this
relationship as simply the ground dimension in metres for
In most scenarios direct contrast measurements are preferable each pixel.
as these measurements will have less attenuation. Proxy
contrast measurements are extremely useful when the residue Aspect or for the purposes of this paper, spectral resolution
under study does not produce a directly discernable contrast or (see Figure 2) refers to the dimensions and number of specific
it exists in a regime where direct observation is impossible dimension units for which a sensor is sensitive. Panchromatic
(for example the residue is buried or under semi-permanent imagery is normally sensitive to a broad spectral range
crop cover). normally in the visible and NIR wavelengths. In comparison,
the multispectral scanner of Landsat Thematic Mapper
It is recognised that some of the contrasts discussed below contains 7 bands covering discrete wavelength ranges over
could fall into either category (for example ramparts can different parts of the spectrum. Hyperspectral scanners can
provide a topographic effect as a direct measure but buried collect data in many very narrow band passes. For example,
and infilled enclosure ditches can still produce a topographic the AVIRIS sensor can collect approximately 224 bands
anomaly but as an indirect crop mark measure) but the terms between 0.4 and 2.5 μm at 10 nm intervals. Thus, spectral
will suffice for this paper. resolution can be seen to increase from a ‘broad band’
panchromatic to the very narrow bands of hyperspectral.
Finally this contrast can be expressed through, for example, Increasing spectral resolution at the appropriate areas of the
variations in chemistry, magnetic field, resistance, electromagnetic spectrum may help to improve image
topography, thermal variations or spectral reflectance (Bewley interpretation and classification.
et al., 2005; Gaffney and Gater, 2003; Scollar, 1990; Scudder
et al., 1996).

2.1 Environmental and ambient conditions

Local conditions are a significant factor for site and feature


detection. There is no point in trying to detect crop marks
(proxy residue type) using a hyper-spectral sensor dedicated to
identifying crop stress (appropriate sensor) when there is no
crop on the ground (unfavourable environmental conditions).
A whole range of natural and anthropogenic factors play a part
in how much contrast an archaeological feature, or its proxy,
may exhibit (for example soil type, crop type, diurnal
temperature variations and soil moisture content).

Natural factors can be exacerbated by anthropogenic factors,


particularly local land management practices. For example,
irrigation may make crop features appear earlier; conversely
any increased soil water content may reduce the visibility of
soil marks. Agricultural intervention has been seen to cause a
significant disruption to magnetometry surveys (Maria Beck 1
Aspect resolution is used as a generic term to cover the
pers comm.). dimension in which the sensor measures: the default
examples are given for the electromagnetic spectrum but
The challenge in this context is to garner an appropriate could easily be electric current (Ohm) or magnetic flux
understanding of the localised natural and anthropogenic density (nanotesla (nT))
Figure 2 Contrasting spectral resolutions of AVIRIS, the identification of appropriate sensors to detect contrast and
Landsat and Panchromatic imagery. Note how timeframes when this potential contrast is more likely to be
closely the bands in Landsat follow the AVIRIS detected. This knowledge will also allow the user to determine
bands. which aspects of the archaeological domain are unlikely to be
detected during a survey.
Radiometric resolution determines the sensitivity of the sensor
to differences in received signal strength. The data are 3. CONTRAST AND VISUAL ENHANCEMENT
normally quantised into bits (power of 2). Radiometric
The data in the archaeological domain can be visually
resolution can have a significant impact on the ability to
identified directly within the raw data or by employing
measure and discriminate objects. For example, in 8 bit (256
relatively simple histogram manipulations. However, although
values) imagery bright areas may be overexposed and dark
the feature has been detected it may be masked within the
areas in shadow whereas with 11 bit (2048 values) imagery it
structure of the image. In such instances digital processing
may be possible to distinguish objects within these bright and
techniques are required in order to express the, sometimes
dark areas. Sensors with high radiometric resolution require
subtle, differences or contrast. This is particularly true for
image manipulation to appreciate the increase in data quality.
data with a medium to high radiometric resolution.
This is because the human eye can only discriminate between
20 to 30 shades of grey under normal viewing situations.
When one has an understanding of the nature of the
Under the same conditions the eye can discriminate a much
archaeological residue, the impact of natural and
larger number of colours.
anthropogenic factors over time and the sensor characteristics
one can model how the archaeological feature will express
Temporal resolution refers to how often a sensor system
contrast against any background value. This information can
records a particular area. For all platforms except satellite this
be exploited to develop contrast enhancement algorithms to
value is likely to be infrequent. However, satellite imagery
improve recognition and identification.
tends to cover the same area at the same time of day whereas
all other sensor platforms can cover an area at different times
4. CASE STUDY: HOMS SYRIA
of day. This is particularly significant for some forms of
contrast which occur at different times of day (such as shadow The project Settlement and Landscape Development in the
marks or diurnal temperature variations) or under specific Homs Region, Syria (SHR) was designed to investigate long-
conditions. term human-landscape interaction in three adjacent but
contrasting environmental zones, located in the upper Orontes
2.2.1 Multi-sensor approaches Valley near the present-day city of Homs, Syria (Beck et al.,
2007; Philip et al., 2005; Philip et al., 2002a; Philip et al.,
In most cases only a small component of the image domain 2002b). Each zone is typical of a larger area, and initial study
from a sensor has archaeological significance (see Figure 3). suggested that they differed substantially in both their
Different sensing devices with different aspect resolutions settlement histories and in the nature of their archaeological
capture different elements of the archaeological domain. records.
Therefore, to gain a greater understanding different detection
techniques can be used. The utility of multi-sensor approaches
can not be stressed enough because combined sensor
responses offer much finer granularity than the sum of their
independent responses (although the problem of finding
boundaries between regions of interest and background is
exacerbated). Multi-sensor approaches are particularly
pertinent to those countries that have poorly developed
national archaeological inventories and intend to use remote
sensing techniques for rapid survey. In such situations a
thorough understanding of the natural and anthropogenic
factors that impact upon feature contrast is required for the
most comprehensive survey.

Figure 4 Comparison of Corona KH-4b photography


and Ikonos MS imagery (archaeological sites are
numbered)

The project has principally employed a combination of Corona


Figure 3 Conceptualised archaeological domain and Ikonos satellite imagery for site detection (see Figure 4).
The Corona KH-4b missions used panchromatic film sensitive
2.3 Measuring archaeological contrast to the spectral range 400-700nm – the visible and Near Infra-
Red (NIR). The Corona missions occurred between 1959 and
The issue here is to devise a framework within which the 1972 and the photography archive is available online from
relationship between an archaeological residue and its USGS (2003). All Corona KH-4b mission imagery
immediate matrix can be modelled. This framework will allow
intersecting the study area were purchased prior to analysis. to gain an understanding of how any contrast could be
Once digitised and georeferenced this imagery had a nominal observed in sensors outside the visual wavelengths and the
ground resolution of approximately 2m. actual causation of any contrast.

Ikonos is a commercial satellite providing georeferenced Soil colour is almost entirely an indirect measure of other
imagery in both panchromatic (1m resolution and spectral more important characteristics or qualities that are not so
range 400-900nm) and 4 band multispectral (4m resolution - easily observed. Surface colour that differs from that of the
blue, green, red and NIR) modes. Bespoke Ikonos imagery parent material is usually an indication of the processes
was purchased based upon our understanding of the physical, involved in soil formation and may also be indicative of
chemical and biological properties of the study area as anthropogenic actions which have disturbed a localised soil
discussed below. matrix. Myers (1983) and Horvath et al. (1984) state that the
most important factors influencing soil colour are mineralogy,
The marl zone will be the focus for this case study. In this chemical constituents, soil moisture, soil structure, particle
zone the majority of the archaeological residues take the form size and organic matter content.
of tells and low relief soil mark sites. Tells are prominent
landscape features and, unless heavily eroded, are easy to In order to determine the underlying cause of the soil colour
detect: the majority of tells have already been mapped and change a number of individual soil samples and soil sample
recorded. On the other hand soil mark sites are very difficult transects were taken (Beck, 2004; Wilkinson et al., 2006).
to spot on the ground and have traditionally been located The following laboratory analyses were undertaken on those
using intensive surface survey programmes. Prior to this study samples (see Figure 5):
only a small portion of soil sites had been mapped. In this • Moist and dry spectro-radiometer readings
zone soil sites have a minimum size of c. 25m 2 hence the • Particle size measurement
spatial resolution of both Corona and Ikonos sensors is • Magnetic susceptibility
appropriate for their detection. • Geochemical analysis

4.1 Contrast and soil marks in the marl zone

After an initial field visit and analysis it became apparent that


sites could be detected in the historic Corona imagery (Philip
et al., 2002a). However, the project had the funding to
purchase bespoke Ikonos imagery and needed to determine the
most appropriate time frame and conditions for archaeological
detection.

In order to detect the archaeological residues we need to


understand not only how any contrast would be expressed but
also the physical causation of that contrast. It was postulated
that these sites represent the decayed and thoroughly ploughed
remains of abandoned settlements originally composed of
mudbrick structures (Beck, 2004; Wilkinson et al., 2006). If
this were the case then the soil associated with each
archaeological site could in theory be differentiated from the
localised soil by some difference in grain size, structure,
moisture content or chemical/biological composition due to
the degraded building material. This may give rise to different
soil and/or crop properties that can be detected using satellite
imagery.

Initially soil colour was recorded against a Munsell chart. Soil


colour is one of the most obvious and easily determined
attributes of soil, and is a primary element widely used by soil
scientists in the identification, field description, Figure 5 Site 339: How it varies under crop, the
characterisation and classification of soils (White, 1997). location of soil sample points overlaying an Ikonos
MS (4,3,2 false colour composite) and comparison of
It was established that, when dry, archaeological residues curve profiles for a number of attributes
were significantly lighter in colour (reflecting an increase in
chroma) than the surrounding off-site soils, but that the two Wilkinson et al. (2006) concluded that differences in spectral
soils were indistinguishable by eye when wet. The inspection reflectance at soil sites were due to variations in moisture,
of Corona imagery from different seasons revealed that the grain size and soil structure between on and off-site soils.
colour differences between archaeological and non-
archaeological soils were most evident during peak aridity This understanding of the physical nature of the
(September to November), although sites were also readily archaeological contrast allows one to rapidly simulate the
detectable during periods of drying-out following rainfall. effectiveness of sensors with different sensing characteristics
This presumably reflects differences in the capacity of and how direct and proxy contrasts might be exhibited in a
archaeological and non-archaeological soils to retain moisture. range of different environmental conditions.
This simple observation provided enough information to
determine that for optical satellite imagery the archaeological It is assumed that crop marks will not be detected by satellite
residues in this environmental zone would exhibit the most imagery: although it is theoretically possible to detect crop
contrast during periods of peak aridity. However, we wanted
marks from satellite imagery the likelihood of programming a Although from the small scale image it looks like this
scene that will intersect with crop mark formation is low. This technique provides no benefit: the image looks grey scale as
is exacerbated by the fact that crop marks form at different most off-site values are close to zero in all bands. The close
times depending upon localised environmental conditions and up of the cluster of sites displays how the processed imagery
the type of crop. This is a limitation of the spectral and aids visual detection: site 478 (a prehistoric site) is
temporal resolutions of the satellite sensors and not of the significantly enhanced as is site 458 (an Islamic settlement in
underlying theory. the lee of tell site 256). At first glance the small scale image
of the standard deviation stretched imagery appears to display
With these factors in mind Ikonos imagery was booked for more information. However, this stretch helps to identify the
collection between October 2001 and January 2002. This broad categories across the global image (i.e. water and
timeframe covers the driest months and the start of the winter different soil types). As a consequence the close up looks
rains. There is limited or no crop cover at this time. Due to a saturated and washed out.
number of factors outside our control the imagery was finally
collected in February 2002. Although this time frame was not 5. DISCUSSION
ideal the heavier rains had not commenced. It could be argued
that the light rains improved image fidelity buy helping to In this case study the re-incorporation of degraded mud-brick
remove atmospheric dust. building material gave rise to changes in the moisture content,
grain size and structure of the soil at the site. Having an
4.2 Contrast enhancement algorithms understanding of the physical nature of this archaeological de-
formation process allows one to determine what types of
As has been postulated and then demonstrated (see Figure 5) sensing device, or other detection technique, and what
archaeological residues in the marl zone do not exhibit a conditions are appropriate for identifying this contrast.
unique spectral curve. Anthropogenic action associated with
the use and destruction of a site alters the underlying soil
properties. This in turn produces the difference in reflectance
in the optical wavelengths which mean that this site can be
detected using optical satellite sensors. In this environment we
can generalise that archaeological soil mark sites share similar
spectral signatures to the local soil but have higher reflectance
characteristics. The difference in reflectance provides the
contrast which allows the sites to be detected.

In many instances the visual contrast of the archaeological


residues could be enhanced by simple histogram
manipulations (i.e. density slicing, contrast stretching or using
false colour composites). These enhancement techniques tend
to be image based meaning that the global statistics for the
whole image determine the enhancement. This may mean that
histogram enhancements could mask subtleties as local
variations are lost to global image characteristics: since target
features only account for a very small percentage of the data
in an image, their signature characteristics can be masked by
the global statistics of the dataset.

A greater understanding of the underlying processes that


produce the contrast allows more effective visual
enhancement algorithms to be produced (Beck, 2004). One
technique that was developed treated archaeological residues
as localised background soil variations. As archaeological
sites display a measurably different reflectance value to the
local soils, subtracting an averaged background soil pixel will
theoretically produce a positive value. It was decided to apply Figure 6 Image enhancement: moving average kernel
a moving average kernel to the Corona and Ikonos imagery in compared against a histogram stretch
order to evaluate whether residues were easier to locate in the
resultant statistical surface. In theory, after processing, areas In this instance the localised reflectance difference expressed
of unmodified soil should have an average approaching zero in the optical wavelengths was used. In order to achieve the
(i.e. minimal bias). Features that significantly deviate from maximum contrast for the archaeological residues the local
these background values, such as archaeological residues, condition required dry soils with limited crop cover. This
roads, buildings, crops and water, should exhibit positive or choice of conditions and contrast type was determined by the
negative values. The only problem was determining the size of sensor used to detect it – an optical sensor was employed so
the kernel. After empirical trial and error approaches to define contrast differences expressed in the optical region are
an appropriate radius for the averaging kernel, a compromise required. However, we could have employed sensors in the
of 200m was reached. This provides a large enough area that Short Wave Infra Red (SWIR) which may be more sensitive to
extends beyond the outlines of most sites and can be variations in mineralogy and structure.
processed in a reasonable time frame.
Finally, we can use this knowledge to enhance the
The results of the averaging kernel on all the imagery were visualisation of the anomaly. Once it was understood that in
excellent. Figure 6 compares a 3,2,1 false colour composite of the optical wavelengths the sites did not produce a specific
the 200m kernel average and unprocessed Ikonos MS imagery.
spectral signature but rather a relative shift to the spectral satellite imagery for archaeological prospection in western
curve we could develop enhancement algorithms that worked Syria. Antiquity, 81: 161-175.
on the local rather than the global level.
Bewley, R.H., Crutchley, S.P. and Shell, C., 2005. New light
6. CONCLUSION on an ancient landscape: lidar survey in the Stonehenge World
Heritage Site. Antiquity, 79: 636-647.
Archaeological residues represent modifications of a pre-
existing landscape and are therefore strongly influenced by the Crawford, O.G.S., 1923. Air survey and archaeology.
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at all, it will only work within a consistent background
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see for example Altaweel (2005). Ordnance Survey, Southampton.

An inductive approach was used that demonstrated the utility Crawford, O.G.S., 1929. Air photography for archaeologists,
of understanding the physical processes underpinning Ordnance Survey, Southampton.
archaeological contrast detection. This understanding has
allowed the collection of imagery at the most appropriate time Donoghue, D.N.M., 1999. Multispectral Remote Sensing for
for detection and facilitated the creation of an enhancement archaeology. In: S. Campana and M. Forte (Editors), Ciclo di
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The techniques presented in this paper will not allow pp. 181-192.
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archaeological significance located within the structure of a Gaffney, C. and Gater, J., 2003. Revealing the Buried Past:
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understanding of the nature of the archaeological residues, Horvath, E.H., Post, D.F. and Kelsey, J.B., 1984. Relationship
their relationships with the immediate matrix, the among Landsat digital data and the properties of Arizona
characteristics of the ‘observing’ sensor and the rangelands. Soil Science Society of America, 56: 865-872.
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Myers, V., 1983. Remote sensing applications in agriculture.
It would seem logical that a methodological framework, along In: R.N. Colwell, J.E. Estes and G.A. Thorley (Editors),
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generated. This will aid archaeological feature detection by Photogrammetry, Falls Church, Va.
suggesting different sensors to detect different archaeological
features in different environments under different conditions. Philip, G., Abdulkarim, M., Beck, A. and Newson, P.G., 2005.
It is recommended that a deductive framework is devised Settlement and landscape development in the Homs region,
based upon field measurement and sampling over a range of Syria: report on work undertaken 2001-2003. Levant, 37: 21-
archaeological residues in contrasting environments at 42.
different times of year. This type of information is essential
for regional and national cultural resource managers who need Philip, G., Donoghue, D.N.M., Beck, A.R. and Galiatsatos, N.,
to effectively deploy scarce resources. 2002a. CORONA satellite photography: an archaeological
application from the Middle East. Antiquity, 76(291): 109-
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 118.
The author gratefully acknowledges doctoral research support Philip, G., Jabour, F., Beck, A.R., Bshesh, M., Grove, J., Kirk,
provided by the Natural Environment Research Council A. and Millard, A.R., 2002b. Settlement and Landscape
through Award Ref. GT0499TS53 and for the purchase of the Development in the Homs Region, Syria: Research Questions,
Ikonos imagery by their Earth Observation Data Centre. Preliminary Results 1999-2000 and Future Potential. Levant,
Thanks are due to Drs Graham Philip and Danny Donoghue at 34.
Durham University, Dr. Simon Hickinbotham at Leeds
University and Maria Beck, their comments have helped to Scollar, I., 1990. Archaeological prospecting and remote
substantially improve the clarity of this paper. The Ikonos sensing. Topics in remote sensing ; 2. Cambridge University
imagery includes material © 2003, European Space Imaging Press, Cambridge.
GmbH, all rights reserved. Corona data compiled by the U.S.
Geological Survey. Scudder, S.J., Foss, J.E. and Collins, M.E., 1996. Soil Science
and Archaeology. Advances in agronomy, 57: 1-76.
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