Buried beneath the soils of Burma lies a mystery that has been almost 70 years in the making: were a shipment of Spitfire aircraft concealed beneath a British airbase at the end of the Second World War? Dr Adam Booth, a geophysicist at Imperial College London and regular GeoLog contributor, is part of an archaeological team who are trying to unearth the truth in this tale. He’s posting to GeoLog from the field: this Part 3 of the series arrived late due to unreliable internet connection in Burma, but we hope it was worth the wait! Read Adam’s other posts on the Spitfire search here.
13 January 2013
Good afternoon from Yangon! I know it’s been a while, but the geophysics team hit the ground running, surveying almost from day one ahead of this week’s digging. I’m now just grabbing half an hour to begin updating this blog ahead of a reception at the British Ambassador’s residence…! We obviously have made some friends in high places in Myanmar!
Despite a wealth of new geophysical data, acquired by Roger Clark and Andy Merritt of University of Leeds, and myself of Imperial College, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you with baited breath about whether there are Spitfires buried at Mingaladon! Our business partners are finalising details of our excavation but we’re hoping to break ground very soon. So, I can update you on the geophysical side of the project and how it is to work in Myanmar – but if you’re checking this blog for confirmation of buried Spitfires, you might just have to wait for another few days…!
A typical day of geophysical survey starts around 8am, when we get a taxi from our hotel to Mingaladon Airport, where we are met by our security supervisors and our industry colleagues. The airport is about seven miles away from the hotel, and the journey through Yangon’s chaotic traffic takes around 45 minutes. I say ‘chaotic’, although I’m not entirely sure that’s the correct word: there’s something ordered to the way the Burmese drive, but a bus performing a sharp U-turn across a busy dual carriageway is not something I think I’ll get used to! However, there’s a lot to take in during that 45-minute spell and it’s one of the only times that I enjoy sitting in a traffic jam: mingling amongst the very friendly Burmese is fun, and seeing the sunlight glint from the roofs of golden roofs of pagodas is really special. On several nights, we’ve returned to the hotel via crowded and colourful market streets, and I truly love people-watching.
In 2004, when we did our previous survey, I was here during the monsoon season, when there was rain like I’ve never experienced since: the field area was a swamp and, whilst it was humid, it wasn’t too hot. Now, in January, it’s both hot and humid – the dry ground makes for better survey conditions, but the downside is that the humidity really saps your strength. Our first task has been to map the micro-scale terrain across the site. Whilst the area appears flat to the average onlooker, our archaeological colleagues can interpret where features may potentially be buried from small-scale topographic lump-and-bumps. Andy Merritt takes charge of this using a Trimble differential GPS system. Whilst I might complain about the heat and humidity, I really have no right to as Andy notched up a walk of over 17 km around the site yesterday!
However, it’s not like Roger and I are simply sat around watching Andy walking around…! While he maps terrain, we use the EM-34 (our electromagnetic kit) to extend the coverage of the 2004 survey grid. From these data, we are able to map the infrastructure of the 1945 base, thereby allowing the conflict archaeologists to ensure that we’re digging in a place that is indeed consistent with the eyewitness accounts. However, a direct comparison of the 2013 and 2004 EM acquisitions has proven difficult, since the ground is now so much drier than it was before and there is subsequently a different electrical conductivity regime.
Our third piece of kit, the ERT (electrical resistivity tomography) has also been deployed both over and away from the 2004 EM anomalies. I have to say, from a purely practical viewpoint, this is my least favourite of the three pieces of equipment… its cables are prone to tangling, and my hands are blistered from repeatedly hammering 48 electrodes into hard-baked ground…! Nonetheless, from a geophysical viewpoint, it has shown a strong suggestion of structure close to the 2004 dig site, confirming that it is indeed worth a second look. I’m really looking forward to meeting whatever causes these anomalies face-to-face!
I should also say, thanks to everyone who commented on the previous blog posts. It’s really great to see the interest that the project has generated. I’m therefore sorry that I can’t currently give you the news that you’ve been waiting for – however, the digging is due to start very soon! It’s still exciting times, and I’m looking forward to hearing the engine of our JCB-provided excavators warming up. More to follow, but now I must spruce up for the embassy reception!
By Adam Booth, Imperial College London