Once upon a time archaeology was about being out with a map, a compass, a trowel and a good pair of boots.  Now its ‘Move over Indy’… Space Archaeology is here…the final frontier. 

News reports this week here and here  described how images of lost, undiscovered or misunderstood archaeological sites using NASA satellites, 435 miles above earth, are changing our understanding of ancient Egypt.  By directing an infrared ray and a camera at earth, buried sites, not visible on the surface, come to life for archaeologists to study, governments to administer and security guards to protect.

This is what popular archaeology is all about…exploration and discovery!  I’ll bet this is what many archaeologists born in the 70’s grew up believing in. 

1.  21st century technology,

2.  The ability to dig and understand archaeology without actually digging it,

3.  Pointing lasers or some other imaging ray at the earth to reveal intricate details of past inhabitants, and

4.  Egypt…the Queen of the archaeological world! I am envious!

To cover it succinctly, the main points of the story are:

  • That 17 new pyramids and 3,000 new sites have been identified by infrared technology, captured from satellites. 
  • That 1,000 tombs have been identified.
  • That infra red cameras can detect and record objects or features less  than a metre in size.
  • That we now have the technology to accurately identify and map buried archaeological settlements, across large areas.
  • That we now have the technology to monitor, assess and protect archaeology from space, with high precision.

By detecting differential changes in material densities and heat stored within buried archaeological features, and comparing that with the background response of surrounding natural sediments or geology; the footprints or outline of archaeology no longer visible in the modern landscape can be seen.

For example, the hard mudbrick that Egyptian houses were normally constructed from, give a different signal or response to the loose desert sand sediments surrounding it.

The result is that Dr Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama and NASA are changing the historical concept of settlement, and burial practises, in Egypt. Large areas of land can be investigated using satellite remote sensing, allowing archaeologists to get a better sense of spatial distribution, size, scale, complexity… and discover unknown sites.  

The infrared images are able to detect those remains in the first metres of the earth’s surface, in areas where there is no modern development.  Parcak suggests that there may be more sites and monuments at deeper levels still unknown. 

As an old fashioned field archaeologist, I am very heartened to read that she believes follow up fieldwork and excavation to confirm these initial findings is essential…this enables site characterisation and mean the images undergo rigorous testing regarding their value in archaeological and heritage investigation and management.  This could make a huge impact on the way sites, particularly those in isolated locations, are cared for and protected.

The BBC followed Parcak to Egypt for a documentary, Egypt’s Lost Cities, due to air this Monday in the UK, to test the amazing network of buildings and streets recorded of the ancient city of Tanis. 

The Ancient City of Tanis

A satellite image of an area of Tanis that shows the city to be littered with underground tombs. An ancient streetmap: A satellite image shows a densely occupied city.  Buildings in ancient Egypt were constructed out of mud brick – the material is dense, allowing satellites orbiting above Earth to photograph the outlines of structures invisible to the human eye.
Hidden history: This image of Tanis shows the difference between what the naked eye can see and the underground details that the high-powered satellite camera can pick up

Modern city San El Hagar on the left, with the inset showing the location of ancient Tanis.

Although I have not seen the documentary, news reports described this as a nervous journey, with the team focusing on one target identified by satellite.  The result was the excavation of a 3,000 year building, that matches the shape seen on the satellite image.  Fantastic! 

A Pyramid Complex

Just as amazing is the image of the previously undiscovered pyramid complex.  In the image, 3 square monuments are clearly visible, all of which clearly have circular void spaces internally.  Are these the burial chambers? 

 Saqqara satellite shot

The pyramids are surrounded by boundary ‘walls’ with access points across them, auxiliary buildings, and chevron shapes pointing inward toward the pyramids.   The remains of ramps used in construction or another purpose? 

Outside the immediate pyramid complex are small circular crater like features, and any number of dark points.   Perhaps these are underground tombs and secondary burials, or are they small mud brick dwellings?  Perhaps the evidence of workers and associates also killed on the death of the person inside the pyramid. 

It is tantalising, albeit romantic, archaeology at its best

Of course this is not really new, satellites and radar technology were used by Damian Evans and Bill Saturno from the University of Sydney to visualise the Angkor Wat complex in 2008 from 200 miles in the air see here, and New Zealand archaeologist Kevin Jones flagged the use of infrared technology as potentially benefiting the understanding of Pa and horticultural landscapes in New Zealand in his 1996 article ‘Aerial Photography in New Zealand Archaeology’, see here.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

A satellite image of  The temple of Angkor Wat from above–the surrounding ruins hold untouched archaeological treasure. Image: NASA, Stephen Studd/Getty


The question has to be asked?  Could a landscape such as New Zealand benefit from such a survey?  We have large unpopulated spaces, but would our wet, temperate environment and variable topography muddy the results.  I ask this in regard an article released on April 27th this year in the Wanganui Chronicle announcing the discovery of 720 new historic and archaeological sites in the Wanganui District.  One of the sources of the discoveries was the 1942 run of aerial photography.  Does satellite imagery have the potential to simplify this process of identification and management in New Zealand? Or does it open up sites to potential mismanagement through lack of funds and protection when dealing with increased numbers of archaeological sites?

Aside from the practicalities of its application, if you put together the images generated from this recent story with the words Space, NASA, Indiana Jones and Egypt…and you get a powerhouse story that is sexy, techy and looks good…its probably a good lesson in how archaeology should be advertising itself.

It is just a pity all archaeologists don’t have a space rocket parked in their garage!