Monday, 2 March 2015

Space Archaeology: The Final Frontier?

One of the concerns that has come up a few times in our discussions is how archaeologists are getting so excited about the new digital technologies that they use them just for the sake of using them, rather than for a specific and relevant purpose. Thinking about that, I just wanted to share one way in which digital technology is being used very well in Egypt, one that could be very useful in other locations as well. Dr. Sarah Parcak is an Egyptologist who uses satellites to locate archaeological sites in Egypt and the Mediterranean.

Parcak takes high-resolution satellite images and examines them for anomalies that might indicate the presence of sub-surface remains in order to identify potential archaeological sites.  The satellites use infrared to visualize the changes to the landscape that occurred due to ancient construction projects.  Parcak explains her work through the example of finding the lost ancient Egyptian city of Itj-Tawy, in her 5 minute TEDtalk.  Thus far, in addition to the lost city, Parcak’s team has identified 17 previously unknown pyramids and 1000 tombs. The main goal of this work is to use satellite images to find previously unknown or lost sites, in order to gain a better understanding of the location of ancient sites, and also to create a record before they are lost. The rapid expansion of modern Egyptian cities and towns is encroaching on known archaeological sites, and is likely destroying many unknown sites. Using satellite imaging can help identify sites that could hopefully be surveyed or mapped subsequently, or at least bring them to the attention of archaeologists and local residents, so they can potentially be preserved.

Dr. Parcak has been doing this work for several years, but she recently uncovered an even more important use for this technology. Since the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, she has been using satellite imagery to track the widespread looting that is affecting sites in Egypt.  She is trying to get a sense of the scale and locations of the looting, and to help the authorities know where to target.  I think that digital archaeology is one of the best ways to address this problem, in a way that helps people to truly understand the scale of the issue.  This is perfectly illustrated in these images: The first being a picture of the site of South Dashur in early 2011, where the main archaeological site is in the lower right hand corner, and the dark spots indicate looting pits.  

Looting holes visible at South Dashur in 2011. Image by Sarah Parcak.  National Geographic

In the second image of the same site, taken in 2013, it is easy to see the massive increase in looting pits that have marked the entire area. 

Increased number of looting pits visible at South Dashur in 2013. Image by Sarah Parcak. National Geographic

I think this work illustrates one very effective way to incorporate digital technology into archaeological research and public education in a way that is accessible to both experts and the general public.  It also has major implications for the future of archaeology in Egypt and for the creation and enforcement of antiquities laws in many countries. With the recent news about the destruction of objects in the Mosul museum bringing the subject of looting and destruction of cultural heritage into the public focus, it seems this technology could be very usefully applied to tracking the looting in areas controlled by ISIS, which would have implications within archaeology as well as world politics.  I am interested in hearing other view on the matter as well, what do you all think of this aspect of digital archaeology and how it is being applied?