Stop Digging, Start Listening

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Next time you go treasure-hunting, you might want to leave your shovels at home and instead bring your open ears.

While most treasure hunters use sledgehammers to dig for gold, a UC Berkeley professor has shown that a treasure hunt might turn out more successful if the hammer is used to generate sound waves rather than to dig.

Since 1994, UC Berkeley professor James Rector and a team of seismic experts led by then-graduate student John Washbourne have been using sound waves to detect the location of underground caverns where buried treasures might exist.

Through the use of ordinary sound waves - like the waves you hear when listening to Beethoven, or the sound of your voice - and computer modeling, Rector's work may one day lead to the recovery of ancient treasure troves hidden in the depths of mountain peaks and underground areas around the world.

Rather than using metal detectors, radar, or magical rods, the team has utilized seismic technology - the study and application of sound waves - in the quest for two hoards of gold and jewels in the desert terrain of southeast New Mexico and in the jungles of the Philippines, where treasures are believed to have been hidden by Japanese military members during World War II.

"Seismic means sound waves in the earth," said Rector, who has also used his expertise to search on land and under the ocean for oil and gas. "By creating loud, short-duration sounds and by understanding how sound propagates in earth, you can determine what the earth is made of."

Victorio Peak is a 485-foot mountain marked by a large dike that has created a number of faults, fractures, caves and fissures where treasures may lie.

"To be a good seismologist, you have to understand the physics of waves, digitial signal processing, and, in projects like this, you can't be afraid of heights," said Rector.

The peak's location, in New Mexico's San Andres mountain range, sits along what historians believe was once a trading trail for the early Spanish, as well as the ancient homeland of the Apache. Victorio was the chief of the Apaches at the time.

"According to legend, the Apache raided the Spanish traders and stuck gold in the peaks," Rector said.

Data collected from the seismic research has allowed the team to develop a three-dimensional model of the peak's interior, where mounds of buried treasures and artifacts estimated to be worth more than two billion dollars are believed to be located.

The legend of the Victorio Peak treasure is worthy of a Hollywood script, dating back to the 1930s when gold was first discovered in the area. During that period, Milton "Doc" Noss - a hunter and self-proclaimed foot doctor - discovered a large treasure while hunting in the San Andres mountain range.

In 1940, the Noss family hired an engineer to recover the treasure under the passageway Noss stumbled across, but the detonation of too much dynamite collapsed the mountain, making a possible excavation of the treasures extremely difficult.

Experts have had difficulty locating and recovering the buried bullion because of the precarious conditions of the mountain.

"It's hard because this place is in the middle of nowhere," said Rector, who has traveled to the site extensively. "It's dangerous and very scary. It's a very wild trip."

Nine years after the original collapse, Noss, who had been selling fractions of the gold he retrieved from the site on the black market, was murdered. Three years later, the site was taken over by the U.S. Army as part of the White Sands Missile Range.

"There were various rumors of the army looking for treasures - stories that sergeants retired wealthy and the family found out that the army was snooping around," Rector said.

Later, after Congress allowed the family back onto the site, there was still no success in finding the treasure.

After failed attempts to dig and find the cavern with a vaccuum truck that was supposed to find the entrance, Rector's team was called in to take a different approach to finding the treasure.

"They ran around with metal detectors and really didn't find anything," Rector said.

They decided that the most viable method of search was to analyze the geography of the mountain for voids - empty, cave-like spaces - where troves of treasures could be located. This technique would help pinpoint the location of the possible fortune. To search, the team emitted sound shock waves into the earth and used sensitive listening devices called geophones to obtain data and develop images of the mountain subsurface.

The team laid out an extensive grid of geophones and source points generated by a sledgehammer around the peak and sent out pulses of energy into the earth to produce waves.

"We had to climb down into the fissure opened by the vacuum truck to deploy the geophones," Rector said. "This is about six stories up, and no nets."

The sound waves are transmitted through the surface of the earth similarly to the way a rock thrown in a pool generates surface waves in the water.

"It's very much like ultrasound, but the medium of the earth is much more complex than the human body," Rector said. "Air voids within rock act to block the sound from traveling, and by locating the positions of sound blockage, we locate the air voids There are different kinds of rocks and different types of fluids. Think of a wall - you can't hear people talking on the other side. Now reverse the properties (rock to air to rock) and the same thing happens."

The scientists generated the sound waves by slamming a 10-pound sledgehammer onto an aluminum plate on the surface of the earth, as well as along the walls of the fissures. In addition, dynamite was also used to generate sound wave data to narrow down possible areas that could contain the treasure trove.

In the analysis of the collected data, the Berkeley team looked for anomalies - sets of seismic data that differ markedly from the rest - to locate parts of the land that may indicate a presence of a fissure.

"The voids are detected as an amplitude anomaly in the transmitted arrivals," Rector said. "Essentially, it's as if you were shining a sound beam through the rock. In areas that are acoustically opaque you get a reduced amplitude. By shining the beams at multiple angles through the rock, you can tomographically reconstruct the opaque zones."

The location of voids was determined by studying amplitude, or height, of waves transmitted through the mountain terrain. Amplitude is the measure of the energy in a seismic, or sound, wave.

According to Rector, this energy decreases with distance, and would be observed when sound waves need to travel longer distances along the sides of a void. As a result, voids in the earth were characterized by wave arrivals of increased travel time and decreased amplitude.

"The waves actually travel around the air-filled voids," he said. "Since they travel around, they have a reduced amplitude."

The presence of a void in the area between the source, which emits the sound, and the receiver, which detects the sound, significantly alters the character of the energy that is received by the receiver, scientists said.

"We sent waves through the top of the mountain to the deep set of sensors," Rector said. "We looked for acoustically opaque zones where sound waves don't travel as well. These are voids. We found a big area under the mountain that looked really promising for a big cave."

Although Rector and his team were able to successfully help locate possible caverns, the treasure hunting project has since been halted.

Following the discovery of the void by the UC Berkeley seismologists, a team of engineers was hired to begin creating a drift to the location that Rector and his team concluded was an air-filled void. The engineers were able to locate a large chamber that had some evidence of human occupation, including dozens of skeletons, but the work was stopped before further investigation could be conducted.

No treasures have been completely and successfully excavated, but Rector said he enjoys his work.

"It's an artistic success, but a financial failure," he said.

If the project does resume, Rector said he would like to do some more sound emission if the project resumes.

"To see into the earth, we need to put sensors deep into the earth," he said. "Deeper voids are something we would consider doing."

Although Rector and his team know they will not receive any of the buried treasure if found, the opportunity to apply their science of expertise to such a project is more than enough motivation to continue the work.

"It was fun," he said. "It was a chance to do some really good science. This is an application of my research, which is in applied seismology."

Rector plans to teach a freshman seminar next semester on treasure hunting. In the meantime, get your hammers ready - to listen, that is.


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