Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Egyptian Pyramids Discovered with Infra-red Satellites

Infra-red satellites have spotted 17 lost Egyptian pyramids and more than 1,000 tombs and 3,000 ancient settlements. To read the full BBC article, click here. The find is credited to US Egyptologist Dr. Sarah Parcak from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Read below for an excerpt from Dr. Parcak's contributing piece on Satellite Archaeology on the World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras database.

Satellite Archaeology

Satellite archaeology is an exciting new field in which archaeologists are using cutting edge spatial technologies to detect many new archaeological features across the globe. Although the term "remote sensing" can mean anything that allows one to see things remotely (such as a camera), in archaeology, it refers to how archaeologists use satellites and aerial photographs to view ancient features otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Remote sensing in general is used in most of the sciences, including geology, physics, environmental studies/biology, and polar studies, to view long and short-term landscape changes. The same science can be applied to not only detect archaeological features of interest, but can examine modern issues such as population expansion and urbanization, both of which affect archaeological site preservation.

Archaeologists have utilized remote sensing since the early 1900s, when they viewed ancient features such as Stonehenge from balloons. Early World War I aerial photography allowed amateur archaeologists to record archaeological sites in the Middle East, which continued in World War II in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. The 1970s saw the first uses of satellite remote sensing for archaeology with the launch of the Landsat satellite by NASA. Archaeologists quickly grasped the potential of this technology for detecting long-lost sites in the Americas, and use of satellites only increased in the 1980s and 1990s on every continent with known archaeological material. With the launch of Google Earth, nearly every archaeological project in the world now utilizes some form of remote sensing for project planning, mapping, and survey.


Many archaeological projects have made use of remote sensing technology to not only detect sites, but to reconstruct past landscapes, and to answer questions about past social, political, economic, and environmental changes. One archaeological project by the author has detected hundreds of previously unknown ancient sites across Egypt. This project used a combination of high resolution and NASA satellite imagery in places that archaeologists had not surveyed in nearly 200 years. On ground survey allowed the detection of 132 "new" ancient sites, including a major complex dating to the time of the pyramids and a large desert trading post. Based on this research, there are likely thousands of ancient sites left to find in Egypt. Another project has used NASA satellite data in Guatemala and Belize to detect long-lost Maya settlements. The satellite data allowed the scientists to see color changes in rainforest trees too subtle to be seen by the human eye alone, which indicated long-covered over limestone monuments. On Easter Island, very high-resolution satellite data has allowed archaeologists to detect the roads used to transport the ancient Moai, the traditional name for the large ceremonial stone heads. [...] Many additional projects exist that use satellite technology, and many more will be developed as the technology improves.

Google Earth allows anyone to use remote sensing for archaeological site detection. For the first time, archaeologists are working together with the general public to investigate features found using satellite data. For example, archaeological features found in fields in France by members of the public turned out to be Roman-period villas. Unlike most satellite imagery, Google Earth is free, although it does not permit advanced remote sensing analysis. Satellite remote sensing analysis can take years of training to become proficient, and requires access to memory-intensive computers. It is a combination of both approaches that can be most useful in the detection of archaeological sites. One of the key issues archaeologists face in the 21st century is how to use advanced technology to protect and preserve the past for future generations, especially in the face of archaeological site looting. With ongoing conflicts in some of the richest archaeological landscapes in the world, it may be many years before excavations can resume in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Archaeologists can use high-resolution imagery to detect previously unknown ancient sites, as well as protect known sites by monitoring them regularly for site looting. As a whole, satellite remote sensing has much to contribute to the field of archaeology. It is not a tool to be used on its own, but combined with ground survey and excavation, will significantly advance the field of archaeology over the next 25 years.

Parcak, Sarah. "Satellite Archaeology: Satellite Archaeology." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 25 May 2011. 


World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras
This database covers early human history around the globe—from prehistoric times to the beginnings of the Renaissance. Click here for a free trial.

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