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Lázaro Lagóstena: How to detect ancient buried cities without any digging | USA

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The ground-penetrating radar used in 2017 to uncover the ancient Punic port of Doña Blanca.
The ground-penetrating radar used in 2017 to uncover the ancient Punic port of Doña Blanca.Juan Carlos Toro

In just a few days, the Spanish archeologist Lázaro Lagóstena can figure out the complete layout of streets, buildings and ports in ancient cities that were swallowed up by the earth centuries ago. And he can do it without any digging.

It’s been years since Lagóstena, a professor of ancient history at Cádiz University (UCA), last used trowels, spades and brushes. Instead, he applies what he terms “the archeology of the future” to locate, say, a necropolis under a field of cereal. He can even determine how many cubic meters of sand would have to be extracted in order to reach it.

This kind of archeology is already a reality at UCA’s Geodetection Unit, which Lagóstena has been coordinating since 2016. His team routinely uses technologies such as ground-penetrating radar, drones and magnetometers – devices that measure magnetic fields – and over the years it has become a leader in this non-destructive way to interpret a country’s archeological heritage.

“I don’t think there is another research team in Europe that has been able to study six Roman cities in such a short period of time, and that’s if we limit ourselves to that particular historical period, because we have done even more,” says Lagóstena proudly.

A 3D model of the Roman site of Arva, in today's Alcolea del Río (Seville), made by the UCA's Geodetection Unit.
A 3D model of the Roman site of Arva, in today’s Alcolea del Río (Seville), made by the UCA’s Geodetection Unit. UCA

In the space of five years this group of between eight and 10 researchers, depending on the number of students in training, has managed to reconstruct the hidden urban layouts of the Roman cities of Hasta Regia (today’s Jerez de la Frontera, in Cádiz province), Ilici (Alcudia, Elche), Libisosa (Lezuza, Albacete), Balsa (Luz de Tavira, in Portugal’s southern Algarve region), Arva (Alcolea del Río, Seville) and Calduba (La Perdiz, Arcos, Cádiz). And there is another project underway in Flavia Sabora (Cañete la Real, Málaga).

But the team’s findings go well beyond ancient Roman cities: they have over 60 projects to their name, some of them commissioned by public and private institutions. Some of them include helping locate mass graves containing victims of the Franco regime that followed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

The use of non-invasive technology in archeology is not new, nor is it exclusive to Lagóstena’s team. But the UCA’s Geodetection Unit has shown a unique capability for detection and interpretation. “There are private companies out there, but not with as much technology,” notes the professor. “This used to be a field for geophysics, where experts would call in historians and archeologists. We, on the other hand, are experienced across disciplines and able to provide interpretation. Our leadership stems from the fact that no other university in Spain has this many resources.”

Lagóstena had not imagined any of this when, back in 2003, he began working on archeological research tied to Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a set of tools that can link a vast amount of data that’s been georeferenced and positioned on maps. It was then that he first applied for a national program of infrastructure and scientific equipment in order to build up the Seminario Agustín de Orozco department at UCA.

Lagóstena explains how a ground-penetrating radar works (Spanish audio).

But the real turning point for the unit came in 2016, when it secured funding for its first large ground-penetrating radar. Despite initial misgivings about how useful it would be, in just two test runs the device was able to locate and map out the largest known Punic-era port in the Mediterranean, lying under a cultivated field adjacent to the Doña Blanca archeological site, in El Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz).

Since then, the unit has secured four more investment projects and acquired technology worth €1.8 million. It now functions as a peripheral service of UCA, and has the independence to enter into contracts with third parties that have already generated revenues of €250,000. “We’re being hired by other universities, provincial authorities, museums, local governments and companies. We are competitive because we don’t speculate with the quotes, we just charge enough to cover costs and generate some income for the researchers,” says Lagóstena.

The first step in any survey work is usually carried out by drones, which help identify areas of interest and geoposition their working space. The radars – they have five different ones – trace the urban itineraries under the ground to a depth of up to four meters. Their two magnetometers (soon to be four) identify spots where there was combustion in the past, such as a necropolis or a ceramics factory. The team is now planning to buy seismographs and tocographs that will allow them to reach deeper cavities, reconstruct geological layers and even differentiate between human and natural elements lying under the ground.

For Lagóstena, discovering the port of Doña Blanca remains one of his biggest sources of satisfaction. The public interest around this discovery was such that the regional parliament of Andalusia last month unanimously approved a proposal to start negotiations with the current owner of the land with a view to purchasing it and exploring the area further.

The work of the UCA researchers not only yields information about ancient urban structures, it also helps delineate physical areas that should get legal protection and draft appropriate management methods.

“In history we need information. Dig-based archeology is expensive and certain sources of information are now depleted. This is the future,” says Lagóstena, underscoring that technology-based archeology delivers more data in a shorter time and at a lower cost, making it possible to tackle larger territorial investigations that also address issues such as past interaction with the landscape through agriculture and water management.

“We are creating information databases with the experiences of the past. All pre-industrial societies were necessarily sustainable, and if you recover the way they worked, you are moving in a direction that is necessary in the present.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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Officials pushed for State to buy direct provision centres from private firms

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The Government should buy a number of privately-owned direct provision centres as a “priority” as it would be more “cost effective” for the State to run the facilities for asylum seekers, international protection officials have said.

The savings arising from owning the accommodation centres rather than paying private contractors to do so “could be considerable”, departmental briefing documents provided to Minister for Children and Integration Roderic O’Gorman last year state.

The vast majority of direct provision centres are currently owned and run by private companies, with accommodation providers having received some €1.6 billion since 1999, including €183 million last year.

The latest figures show some 7,150 people are in the system of seven State-owned sites and 39 private centres. A further 24 commercially-owned premises are being used to provide emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.

The briefing document, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, says that housing people seeking asylum in State-owned centres would provide the “best protection from the vulnerability of present market reliance”.

“They are also much more cost efficient to run, and the State owns the asset,” it notes.

The document suggested that State centres should aim to accommodate 5,000 people, and “allowing the private sector to supply the rest is regarded as an achievable and reasonable target”.

The purchase of existing centres from private providers “to immediately boost the State’s footprint in this area should be considered as a priority,” the internal document said.

“Some service providers may be open to this and the market appears to be favourable at present,” it said.

The internal briefing suggested the department could then seek private companies or NGOs to run the centres, which would be a “competitive cost option”.

‘Badly needed’

Ongoing maintenance for centres owned by the State was also “badly needed,” as current pressures on the Office of Public Works (OPW) meant it was not possible “for immediate repairs to be done if required”.

“In exploring the model of more State centres, we need to agree and acquire a capital budget,” the briefing stated.

“State land does not require planning permission for new centres as the Minister has a power under the Acts, whereby the OPW can grant the planning permission and this is usually a three-month process. It is not subject to appeal.”

The document says that State centres “can also have a bigger footprint as it will be a permanent fixture in the locality”. In recent years a number of plans for private providers to open direct provision centres in regional towns have been met with protests from locals and anti-immigration activists.

Mr O’Gorman’s department has sought to reform the direct provision system and is seeking to replace the network of centres with a new system of accommodation and supports by the end of 2024.

New centres

A department spokesman confirmed the State has not bought any new centres since the briefing note was written. The spokesman said under the planned overhaul of direct provision, asylum-seekers who arrived into the country would initially be housed in a number of reception and integration centres.

Asylum-seekers will spend a maximum of four months in the reception centres before moving into housing secured through Approved Housing Bodies.

“These centres will be State-owned and purpose built to provide suitable accommodation for approximately 2,000 people at any one time, to cater for the flow-through of the 3,500 applicants over a 12-month period,” he said.


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IN PICTURES: French daredevil takes hair-raising Seine tightrope walk

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Attached by a strap to a safety lanyard, 27-year-old Nathan Paulin slowly progressed barefoot on a line stretched across the river between the Eiffel Tower and the Chaillot Theatre.

He stopped for a few breaks, sitting or lying on the rope.

Paulin holds an umbrella as he performs, for the second time, on a 70-metre-high slackline spanning 670 metres between the Eiffel Tower and the Theatre National de Chaillot. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)

“It wasn’t easy walking 600 metres, concentrating, with everything around, the pressure … but it was still beautiful,” he said after the performance on Saturday.

He said obtaining the necessary authorisations had been a difficulty for him, plus “the stress linked to the audience, the fact that there are a lot of people”.

Photo: (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP)

Paulin, holder of several world records, performed the feat to celebrate France’s annual Heritage Day – when people are invited to visit historic buildings and monuments that are usually closed to the public.

He said his motivation was “mainly to do something beautiful and to share it and also to bring a new perspective on heritage, it is to make heritage come alive”.

He had already crossed the River Seine on a tightrope, on Heritage Day in 2017.



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The truth about Ireland’s monster €240bn debt: it wasn’t the banks

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There’s a perception that Ireland’s monster debt – it will be €240 billion by the end of the year, on a per capita basis the third highest in the world, was put there by band of rogue bankers. And that we as a people have been victims of a terrible wrong.

The truth of course is more sticky, more unpalatable than the bar stool narratives we tell ourselves.

Most of the debt – more than €100 billion – arose from a sequence of budget deficits run up in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and linked to then government’s mismanagement of the public finances, a government that we voted into office three times in succession.

The former Fianna Fáil-led administration had spent lavishly in 2000s while using windfall taxes from the property sector to plug the holes in its accounts.

Deficit

When these taxes dried up, the deficit ballooned. At the height of the crisis in 2009 the deficit was €23 billion. That meant the State was spending €23 billion more than it was taking in by way of taxes and other income.

This necessitated borrowing on a grand scale, which went on – to a varying extent – for a decade until the State ran a budget surplus in 2018.

The original cost of bailing out the banks was €64 billion but this has been clawed back to around €40 billion by way of levies, dividends and share selloffs arising out of the State’s ownership of the banks.

It’s a big number, but less than half the bill foisted upon us from budgetary mismanagement, none of which can be clawed back.

On a per capita basis, the State’s debt figure equates to €46,000 for every man, woman and child in the State and €103,300 for every worker.

And the cost of servicing it has cost us €60 billion over the past decade: equivalent to three years of health spending. Make no mistake the State is paying for its boom time folly.

So it behoves us to sit up and listen when the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (Ifac) sounds a note of caution about the Government’s budgetary strategy, particularly when it claims we’re sailing close to unsustainable debt trajectory.

And not to dismiss the council’s critique, as some do, as an act of fiscal pedantry, far removed from the realpolitik of government.

While the €4.2 billion spending hike earmarked for Budget 2022 is broadly welcomed, the council takes issue with the Government’s medium-term budgetary strategy, which envisages a series of much bigger budget deficits out to 2025 and nearly €19 billion in additional borrowing.

Debt

This will leave the State with a bigger and less manageable debt up the line and therefore more exposed to the next crisis. There was now a one in four chance of the national debt moving on to an unsustainable trajectory in the years ahead, it said.

The council also warned that borrowing and ramping up spending during a strong recovery could “backfire” triggering an acceleration in prices if capacity constraints, most notably in the construction sector, bite.

You would think that as a country with a big debt, the chief threat here is rising interest rates, something that is likely to arise if the current pick-up in inflation proves longer than expected.

Ifac has stress-tested the Irish economy against possible interest rate hikes and growth shocks, finding the latter poses a greater problem.

While a big 2 percentage point shock to the Government’s borrowing costs would add just 0.4 percentage points to the debt ratio in three years it would barely raise annual funding costs. This is largely because the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) bond issuance is long-dated and, in the main, fixed rate.

In contrast a typical growth shock of 3.6 per cent for two years could add over 20 percentage points to the debt ratio in three years. “With high debt ratios to begin with, this could snowball and make it difficult to pull down debt ratios in later years,” it said.

Plan

Two years ago, NTMA chief Conor O’Kelly was asked what the chief financial risks facing the agency were and if it had a Brexit contingency plan.

He said the agency operated on “permanent contingency” basis . As a small, highly-indebted economy, which relies on international investors for 90 per cent of its borrowings, he said Ireland and the NTMA needed to be in a permanent state of crisis readiness.

The reality is that the next shock, the next thing that will hit our funding market, will probably be something that we have not yet thought of and is not on the front page of every newspaper in the world, O’Kelly said. Nine months later, the Covid crisis hit and the global economy fell off a cliff and the NTMA’s borrowing plans were out the window.

This goes to the heart of Ifac’s commentary: it’s not a case of wondering if there will be another recession or if there will be another financial shock, that’s a given, they’re coming on average every 10 years.

Downturns are part of the natural cycle, financial shocks are part of the global economy. The question is, will you be in a position to borrow and spend your way out of it.


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