Archaeologist looks to space to make new discoveries on Earth

Imagine being an archaeologist and looking at the Earth landscape through satellite imagery as if it were a puzzle on a table-top. That’s how Sarah Parcak looks at the world from space, and she’s putting the puzzle together to see how we are all connected throughout history.

While some archaeologists are turning their gaze toward space to find the next big discoveries, Parcak is focused on using space-based technology in order to find what researchers have missed on Earth or to find new information on previously known sites.

As a professor of Anthropology and director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Parcak has spent her career on digs in Egypt but spends a lot of her time on the computer scanning the Earth’s surface in various locations trying to learn more from an aerial point of view.

“It is archaeology using satellites, high-flying aircraft or any other platform that allows you to take pictures remotely of the Earth’s surface,” she told The Guardian during an interview.

“You’re looking back on Earth to find subtle hints of ancient features buried under the ground. Sometimes things show up visually, but more often we are looking in different parts of the light spectrum that we can’t see. For example, the near infrared shows small differences in vegetation and you might expect the vegetation growing on top of buried stone to be a little less healthy.”

“Many thousands of new Mayan sites were found recently in the Guatemalan jungle using Lidar imaging. It is a laser system, flown from an airplane, that bounces pulsed laser light off the ground, revealing features which would normally be hidden below the vegetation.”

It really does work, too. Archaeologists have discovered the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis, but they had only scratched the surface until Parcak looked at it from high above.

“I got satellite imagery from a very wet time of year because, compared to the sandy surroundings, the crumbling mud brick of the site absorbs water,” she explained.

“I was zoomed in, processing the image, trying to get the small outlines of the mud brick to pop out, and when I zoomed out for the first time – boom! There was this huge map of the whole city. I almost fell off my seat. You could see clear buildings, streets, suburbs – everything. We went on to collaborate with a French team to excavate a building.”

Satellite image of Tanis in Egypt. To the naked eye, it’s just a desert. Image via YouTube.

Parcak even used the technology to find a Roman amphitheater in an otherwise empty field.

Enhanced satellite image showing the Roman structure under the ground on the left and an aerial photo of the empty field on the right. Image via YouTube.

The remarkable technology can also be used by anyone to help archaeologists find new places to dig, such as in Peru.

“We’ve had about 90,000 users find almost 20,000 previously unrecorded potential sites there, 700 of which we think are of major archaeological importance,” Parcak revealed. “People have a 90% success rate at identifying genuine archaeological features.”

“The things on top of the buried sites are affected by what’s beneath,” she told NPR.

“So by looking at different parts of the light spectrum — especially the near, middle and far infrared — we can see these shapes and outlines in ways that we absolutely cannot see with our naked eyes alone. It’s almost like a space-based X-ray system to help us view, in some cases, entire maps of ancient archaeological sites.”

Her use of this satellite imagery not only helps her find archaeological sites, but it has also helped her learn more about humans.

“Humans are very resilient,” Parcak said.

“And in spite of all the terrible things that we have done to each other, I think we’re 51% good. So I try to hold onto that, especially being the parent of a young child.”

She also sees how connected we are with each other across history.

“I think I have the same perspective of Earth that astronauts have,” she said.

“I don’t see borders. I see how connected we are. We’re not actually digging for things, we’re actually digging for people — the people who made these things. That’s what I try to remember no matter what I take out of the ground. I try to imagine the humans that made it that were so much like us, in spite of being separated by thousands of years.”

Parcak hopes the technology will get even better in the future, allowing archaeologists to get an even closer and more detailed look at potential sites and existing sites.

“The highest resolution satellite imagery we have right now is 0.3 meters,” she pointed out.

“In the next five to 10 years, I’m expecting that to get down to about 0.1 meters.”

“Imagine being able to zoom in from space and see a pottery shard!”

That would be seriously cool, especially for people who can’t afford to fly across the world to check out a discovery or is not involved with an archaeological program digging at a specific site. We could all enjoy looking at the same artifacts, just with a bird’s eye perspective.

But nothing can really replace digging up an artifact and touching it with your own hands, and learning about an artifact is more important than just finding it.

“I feel like I’m adding little footnotes to the history of humanity, one at a time, with every little thing that I excavate,” she said.

“I try to never take it for granted for a moment. We say in archaeology: It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”

Increasingly, technology is being used by archaeologists to explore sites that have been difficult to access in the past, such as the pyramids of the black pharaohs in Sudan, in which the tombs are underwater.

The new technological techniques offer a whole new world and viewpoint that will change our understanding of the past and our own society. We are going to learn things about our ancestors and ourselves that had not been known before. There has never been a better time to be an archaeologist than right now.

Featured Image: YouTube screenshot

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