Archeology from Space


When talking about archeologists and treasure hunters, most of us picture Indiana Jones; a university professor and archaeologist famously played in movies by Harrison Ford. Many people love the high level of excitement, not to mention the chance to travel to exotic countries, searching for treasures in ancient temples, rescuing people in distress, fighting bad guys and saving the world.

In the real world, however, things are not that easy; discovering lost ancient cities may take years. Primarily, archaeologists depend on shovels, paper maps to reveal the location of ancient ruins. Thankfully “Satellite Archaeology” now facilitates searching for mysterious, buried, and missing clues for thousands of years.

Satellite Archaeology is a new method for mapping and monitoring potential archaeological sites facing urbanization, looting, and groundwater pollution that could pose threats to such sites. It uses high resolution satellites with thermal and infrared capabilities to pinpoint potential sites of interest in the earth around a meter or so in depth.

In fact, this technique has become an increasingly important tool in archaeological research; it allows archaeologists to uncover unique data that is unobtainable using traditional techniques. Satellites make a 3D image of the area to show if there are any man-made structures beneath soil and vegetation that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Once those potential sites are identified, they are then verified by humans on the ground.

Sarah Helen Parcak, an archaeologist, Egyptologist, and remote sensing expert, has used NASA topography data to identify potential archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome, and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire. She leads survey and excavation projects in Fayoum, Sinai, and Egypt’s East Delta. Thanks to satellite-facilitated infrared imaging techniques by remote-sensing satellites, Parcak and her team were able to discover thousands of ancient sites in Egypt, tracing structures buried deep in the sand; such as the ancient network of streets and houses of Tanis that was once a capital of ancient Egypt, which are now completely invisible beneath the visible ground.

More than 1000 tombs and 3000 ancient settlements were also revealed by looking at infrared images, which show underground buildings due to the differing densities between the rather dense mud-bricks used in ancient Egypt in building construction and the typically less dense surrounding sands or soils under which mud-brick building foundations may often now lay buried. The cameras on the satellites are so powerful they can spot objects of less than a meter in diameter.

There is no doubt that the latest techniques of remote-sensing methods will enable archeologists to find hundreds of thousands of undiscovered ancient sites across the globe. They may stop excavating entirely and send tiny robots to explore underground, leaving the world’s cultural heritage treasures undisturbed for the benefit of future generations. Meanwhile, archaeologists are hoping for better resolutions to be improved to the point where they are capable of zooming in on a single pottery shard buried beneath the Earth’s surface.


This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Winter 2017 issue.

Cover Image by brgfx on Freepik

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