For centuries, archaeologists and looters have scoured every continent to find remnants of past civilizations: archaeologists want to analyze and preserve mankind’s history; yet looters dig for personal gain, destroy the sites during their raids and, sometimes, even the treasures they consider unsaleable. Now archeologists are turning to outer space to solve this challenge. The use of commercial and private satellites is leading the way to help archaeologists identify and secure our heritage before it’s lost forever.

Eyes in the Sky

The Soviet Union launched the world’s first successful satellite into the earth’s orbit 59 years ago on October 4, 1957. Sputnik I was a round metal ball, 58cm (23 in) in size with four antennae, with a transmitter battery that lasted just 21 days, and it could only broadcast radio pulses. These pulses did enable scientists to deduce the density of the upper atmosphere from its drag on the orbit, and the propagation of its radio signals gave information about the ionosphere, which is the layer of the earth’s atmosphere that contains a high concentration of ions and free electrons, and is able to reflect radio waves.

This small Sputnik, the first of five, sparked the Space Wars race between Russia and the USA during the Cold War. Each country strove to be the first to put an animal and then a human into orbit around the earth (Russia won) and then to put a man on the moon (the USA won).

Rivalry aside, scientists around the world have worked towards the creation of many hundreds of commercial and private satellites over the ensuing decades. There are just over 1,000 operational satellites in orbit today and their uses are many: communications; military reconnaissance; land, sea and air observation; navigation and research. Older, defunct, satellites have either burnt up into fragments upon returning to earth or are still moving around up there as space junk.

Today, modern satellite archaeology uses high resolution 3D images from satellites that have thermal and infrared capabilities to pinpoint sites of interest. The images are run through specialized computer software that takes into account terrain, soil conditions, vegetation, variances in seasonal rainfall, and other markers to identify the signatures of man-made structures above and below the ground.

space satellite

Indiana Jones vs Tomb Raiders

In the early 1980s, NASA hired its first archaeologist, Dr. Tom Sever, to further advance their improvements in satellite technology. Using Landsat images, Sever initially discovered Mayan ruins near a site that was intended for a hydroelectric power project near the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

Looters have been known to use Google Earth to identify potential treasure sites and their random digs can now also be identified by archaeologists. In fact, satellite imagery has even shown how archaeologically sensitive areas in Syria that are now being controlled by ISIS have systematically been looted, damaged and destroyed during the current decade.

During the last century, two of the greatest finds – the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt and the Terracotta Army in China – were discovered terrestrially and dug by hand. In the last decade, however, higher-resolution imagery has triggered a boom in discoveries at new and existing sites, allowing archaeologists to hone in on structures, etc., rather than poke about randomly for years.


Enter a New “Indie”

Professor Sarah Parcak, has been awarded the 2016 TED, $1m, prize for her use of satellite technology to identify new archaeological sites and to monitor looting.

Parcak received her Bachelor’s degree in Egyptology and Archaeological Studies in 2001. From 2003 to 2004, as a graduate student, she used a combination of satellite imaging analysis and surface surveys to detect 132 new archaeological sites, while working on her dissertation on satellite imaging.

Parcak is currently the Founding Director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in the USA, and she also runs UAB’s satellite remote sensing laboratory, its research initiatives, faculty and student training, as well as remote sensing courses.

With less than 140 space archaeologists available to identify sites for excavation and protection, the TED award has given her the boost she needs to achieve her next goal which is to create an army of citizen archaeologists around the world.

Modern Age of Information Sharing

Always wanted to be an archaeologist? Here’s your chance. Age and experience don’t matter.

Working with a team of researchers, Parcak plans to turn armchair archaeologists, using their own devices, into crowdsourced space archaeologists by developing an online platform, GlobalXplorer, that will use satellite imagery. It’s estimated that this will be launched in 2017.

No formal training will be necessary and people who sign up will be sent images of small areas, about 30m by 30m, but the location and GPS co-ordinates will not be disclosed to them in order to freeze out looters. “The big dream is that ultimately we will map the entire world,” Parcak said. “You’d have a global alarm system where areas would glow red when they are being looted.”

Newly discovered sites will be shared on social media to keep interest in the project alive, but the locations will not be announced. The site data will, of course, be shared with archaeologists and government authorities worldwide. It will be up to the relevant governments to protect the sites and then to issue the necessary permits for excavation.

Wanting to know one’s past is written in every person’s DNA. Imagine losing, for example, the Egyptian pyramids and tombs, the Inca and Aztec ruins and Angkor Wat. “This technology is not about what you find – but how you can think about things like settlement scale and ancient human-environment interactions more broadly,” Parcak told an interviewer. “What happens when you can truly map the near-surface buried features for an entire site? I’m excited, but we need to think about the implications of having all this technology at our fingertips so we can use it responsibly.”

The use of GlobalXplorer can never prevent looting, but educating children and adults about the value of learning from and preserving the world’s history just might be the first step towards curbing wanton damage and the loss of artifacts.