Quick Tips: Archaeological Techniques – Ground Penetrating Radar.

Ground-penetrating or probing radar (GPR) is a non-destructive, geophysical method that uses radar pulses to image the subsurface. The principles of ground-penetrating radar are similar to reflection seismology, except that electromagnetic energy is used instead of acoustic energy, and reflections appear at boundaries with different dielectric constants instead of acoustic impedances.

Ground-penetrating radar was applied in the 1940’s after the use of radar to detect enemy aircraft’s during WW2. In 1960’s, due to the progression of this surveying technique, it was primarily used to probe and explore the polar ice. By using GPR in relation to these two applications, a P-38 lightening fighter plane was pinpointed within the ice surrounding Greenland in 1992. The P-38 was originally part of a squadron of six fighters and two B17 Flying Fortresses that ditched just over Greenland in 1942. The P-38 fighter plane was later recovered from a depth of 75m.

How does Ground-penetrating radar work? 

GPR works by emitting high frequency, usually polarized, radio waves via antennas, into the ground. If the area being surveyed contains artefacts or hidden archaeology; these electromagnetic waves are reflected back. When the wave hits a buried object or a boundary with different di-electric constants, the receiving antenna records the variations in the reflected return signal. These returned signals are then collected and interpreted to identify any hidden archaeology within the surveyed area.

N.B. Higher frequencies do not penetrate the ground as far as lower frequencies do, but these higher frequencies give a better resolution. Also the radar emitting antennas are usually in contact with the ground for the strongest signal strength; however, GPR air launched antennas can be used above the ground.

Advantages of Ground-penetrating Radar:

  • GPR is non-destructive and not invasive – helping to preserve the archaeology/landscape.
  • GPR can be used in a variety of media/sediments including; rock, soil, ice, fresh water, pavements and structures.
  • It can detect objects, changes in material, and voids/cracks in the ground.

Disadvantages of Ground-penetrating Radar:

  • The depth range of GPR is limited by the electrical conductivity of the ground. As conductivity increases, the penetration depth decreases. This is because the electromagnetic energy is more quickly dissipated into heat, causing a loss in signal strength at depth.
  • In moist and/or clay-laden soils and soils with high electrical conductivity, penetration is sometimes only a few centimetres.
  • Metal can interfere with the electromagnetic radiation – this can give false results.


Balme, J., Paterson, A. 2006. Archaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Archaeological Analayses. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing. Pg 218.

Renfrew, C., Bahn, P. 1991. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London, UK: Thames & Hudson. Pg 249-53.

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