In construction, thorough investigations are undertaken by geoarchaeologists and geotechnics, respectively. Today these two disciplines work mostly independently of each other, but what if the two were brought together so they can collaborate and have dialogue in the early stages of construction?

Frida Klæbo Vonstad is a PhD-candidate at University College London (UCL) in connection with Oxford University and Brighton University, and her project aims on finding a solution for bringing the disciplines closer together. Her aim is to develop a framework that combines the test methods within both disciplines. In her field work she will carry out laboratory examinations of borehole material from both a geotechnical and geoarcheological perspective. She will also compare the results from the borehole samples with ethnographic field studies. Vonstad's work on geotechnology and geoarcheology will contribute developing the scientific field. As part of her PhD-studies, she is afiliated with the Coastal Highway Route E39- project and the Norwegian Public Roads Administration. As part of her research, she will carry out fieldwork near the Bjørnafjorden south of Bergen.

Borehole testing 

I will perform testing of so-called borehole samples, where we extract samples and analyse the composition of the soil or stone in and around the fjord and the seabed. Many index tests are performed in the same way by both disciplines. My project concentrates on how the samples that overlap can be combined in order to reduce the need for sampling and improve collaboration. An added bonus is that we can prevent important knowledge for either one or the other discipline being lost, explains Vonstad.

Studying soil samples, but looking for different things

A typical project begins with ground surveys, where soil properties, bedrock, groundwater level and soil layers on a plan area are mapped. A geotechnical engineer typically working on basis of the results from these surveys then considers how foundations should be designed, how the ground works must be carried out and whether the soil can withstand the load from the procedure. The weight of the construction will also be considered. Geotechnical engineers are mostly investigating the earth's properties to see what limitations it has on which solutions can be chosen. If there are undiscovered man-made-layers during, it can cause real danger for the engineers, as they can lead to unforeseen weaknesses in the construction.

Geoarcheologists, on the other hand, are looking to "read" the soil layers to see if there may be soil qualities that indicate it might be worth doing an archaeological excavation. Geological archeology is related to historical geology, and means that one looks for historical use of an area through organic material such as ash or residues by other organic material, and microfossils that can reveal something about how the landscape may have looked in the past. Through cooperation between these two disciplines, one can see historical geological use of the area and register the findings for further geological and archaeological research. Testing can also predict archaeology in the landscape. Identifying the findings at an early stage, one can adapt the studies around a project rather than risking having to pause the whole project.

– It is common knowledge that archaeologists carry out their investigations close to the starting date of construction, and their findings can cause delays in the project. All planned construction activity comes to a full stop until the archaeologists finish their excavations. This is very expensive! In spite of the fact that this is a known problem, Frida Vonstad is actually the only one I’m aware of aiming at developing a methodology for how these two disciplines can work more closely together. It's very cool, says Pedro Ferreira, Vonstad’s professional supervisor at UCL.

– In construction projects, there is often a great risk that archaeological values may be lost. If geotechnical experts can cooperate with geoarcheologists at an earlier stage in the construction process, it will also be a strength for the archaeological field. It is a win-win situation, Vonstad states.

Working with NASA

– In my academic career, I have jumped a little back and forth between engineering and archaeology. I have formed my own doctoral project following conversations with various industries and professionals. My biggest “thank you”, I owe to Professor (emeritus) John Burland who has helped me tremendously. He has, among other things, researched the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so it has been a great inspiration discussing with him, says Vonstad.

Vonstad has pinpointed a field where more research is needed, and her work so far is in demand. Today she is in close communication with both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) on how to extract the best possible soil samples on Mars. They are interested in her interdisciplinary approach, combining geological sciences to streamline testing of the borehole samples.

– Of course, it is very exciting that they are interested in my project and that they want to use my methodology in real life!

Will help reduce risk in the implementation of projects

– We are cooperating with Vonstad to achieve a framework that can reduce the risk in the implementation of projects in the Coastal Highway Route E39-project. The earlier on in the process we can gather information, the better, says Mathias Egeland Eidem from the Norwegian Public Roads Administration. He highlights the benefits of being able to perform both geotechnical and archaeological tests at the same time, and hence saving both time and money.