Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Archaeology from Above – Academic and Amateur Archaeologists’ Use of Google Earth

Since its release in 2005, Google Earth has been a boon for academic and amateur archaeologists alike who make use of the open access satellite imagery to scour landscapes for evidence of archaeological sites and features.  A look at the gallery at the following link (here) demonstrates the impressive, albeit sometimes accidental, research capabilities of this software, showing the many types of discoveries, archaeological and otherwise, that Google Earth has facilitated or aided in.  I used the program myself for the first time during the last stages of my Master’s research to get a view from above of the two sites I studied, as well as to situate them in the broader landscape of the region (an image I used and edited from Google Earth can be seen below).  I was impressed by the quality of the images that were available as well as the differing resolution it afforded me when examining the sites up close as well as from afar and I can definitely see its obvious research utility.  The version I used was free, making its capabilities as open access software even more notable in my mind.  This relatively powerful tool is downloadable by anyone with an internet connection, and this coupled with its low cost, makes it an idea tool for amateur archaeologists.

The following article called "How Google Earth Has Revolutionized Archaeology" discusses the use of Google Earth by amateur archaeologists and metal detector enthusiasts that led to the discovery of the largest hoard of Saxon coins in the United Kingdom a few years ago.  These groups used Google Earth to examine particular features in the landscape, allowing them to better determine where to focus their efforts (the same can be said for academic archaeologists) when it came to field walking with metal detectors.  While this particular group states that they observe the laws in place protecting portable artifacts and work in close contact with regional archaeologists, this cannot be said for all groups using this program and taking part in similar activities.  The archaeologist interviewed in the article expresses horror at the actions of these groups for numerous reasons, including the fact that they can contribute to looting, and are sometimes guilty of disturbing archaeological contexts, rendering them useless in terms of particular research questions.  I admit, I echo many of the same sentiments.

While this particular archaeologist lamented the use of Google Earth by these groups, they also were forced to admit that the availability of these programs has led to an increased interest by the public in archaeology more generally.  Genuine interest from the public can be hard to drum up, and I think that the ability of programs like Google Earth to spark curiosity in people with different levels of experience is one of its greatest strengths, with benefits to be reaped by the public and academics alike.  This capability of Google Earth was apparently not lost on the Archaeological Institute of America, who in honor of the first International Archaeology Day in 2011 partnered with them to create a new layer in the software that displayed the location and a brief description of popular and publicly accessibly archaeological sites in Canada and the US.  Archaeologists were contacted in the Provinces and States and asked for lists of their most popular sites in their local areas, garnering huge numbers of responses.

What do you think about this use of Google Earth as a platform to foster public engagement?  Do you think the positives of having this type of open access satellite imagery available for query outweigh the potential issues that may arise when this technology is used by amateur archaeologists?


Jeff Grieve said...

Hi Arwen,

In my opinion, the benefits of broader public opinion outweigh the risks. I agree that public engagement is difficult to achieve. If open tools like Google Earth help to engage interest in the general public or to spark an interest in the next wave of archaeology students, then I think we need to embrace those positives - despite the fact that these tools can be misused by Archaeologists ... and others for looting etc.

I thought this article was interesting which suggests that Google earth can also be used as a counter measure to assess and control looting.


I think that there are tradeoffs that need to be carefully evaluated with any new technology that comes along. Perhaps the main thing is to make sure that we pause and take the time reflect critically and in a balanced way on every new technology opportunity.

Thanks for sharing.


Trevor Fowler said...

I agree with Jeff. I'd add that the question is a bit out of our hands at this point. Google Earth and tools like it are here. We've opened Pandora's box (or someone has, anyway) and there's no closing it without some global scale event or impact that I think is a bit beyond a blog comment.

So the question becomes for me -- now that it is here, what are we going to do about it? I know looting is a major issue, but I haven't come across anything that demonstrates or projects what the incremental impact of GPs technologies is/will be on incidences of looting, though it is often cited as a danger of such technologies.

Jeff - your link confirms something I draw from Jane Jacobs - the power of the crowd to make things safer through collective oversight. She argues that a safe street is a busy street because of the collective self-monitoring that occurs. If the technology is actively and sufficiently used, Google Earth may permit some kind of a global collective Neighbourhood Watch. I don't know if the scale of interest is there in practice, but we can dream.

Alex Gregor said...

Hi Arwen,

I think this application of Google Earth is really exciting, since its ability to educate and engage curious members of the public is immense. Certainly though it does give looters a tool with which to explore heritage sites and artifacts. However, I think the educational potential of this technology outweighs potential issues in terms of societal benefit. Also considering looting would happen regardless, looters would just find other tools to exploit. My biggest issue however, is how often Google Earth is updated. I did a rudimentary search, and images on Google Earth are supposedly always one to three years old. I would think using such old data to be an issue for researchers who are using this technology, considering how dramatically a landscape can change in this time period. The one benefit to this, notably, is that old information might make finding archaeological sites more difficult for looters. This would make Google Earth an ineffective tool for looters in areas prone to extensive topographical change.