Space technology is transforming archeology. Use of satellite imagery is revealing details of the past previously inaccessible to scholars of ancient times.

Studying the ancient civilizations of the past is not always an easy feat. Limited resources, early languages and lost cities make exploring the past a challenge. Delving under ground however, and exploring artefacts left behind helps gain imperative information about our ancestors. This archaeological approach to history shows us tools from prehistoric societies and helped determine what life and culture was like many millennia ago and is crucial in learning more about the past.

The discovery of antique relics has indefinitely shaped and helped our understanding of ancient cultures, and without these finds we may not know some of the things we do today. However, the task of excavation is long, expensive and labour intensive. Also as many old cities and ruins have become lost over time, an archaeologist faces a difficult challenge on the search for traces of ancient life. The ability to use modern technology can eliminate some these hindering problems.

NASA scientists are using satellite imagery and radar to map ancient land. Satellite remote sensing is the method employed to look beneath the surface, to reveal hidden or invisible remains. This is done by searching sites from different scales. The advantage to this approach is whole landscapes from different resolutions are easily analysed. The pictures captured by satellite are high resolution images; then images taken through infrared filters are overlaid on top.  Although these images are helping discover what is underneath the surface we’re not really “seeing” lost objects or under the sand or soil; instead the effects of human settlement are measurable. Remote sensing technology is able to detect these environmental changes caused by humans and agriculture. These changes are almost impossible to detect just by looking and as NASA Earth scientist Compton Tucker has said “We don’t want to be limited by our eyes”.

Ancient civilizations have become lost over time, however the effect humans have had on their surroundings is something which remains observable albeit not with the naked eye. Last month the BBC broadcasted a television program which looked at these new methods of archaeology searching for ancient Egypt’s lost cities. Dr Sarah Parcak from the University of Alabama used images captured by satellite to identify lost pyramids in Egypt as well produce a detailed map of the once lost city of Tanis. In ancient Tanis building materials were usually mud bricks, which is denser than the surrounding soil and ground. Monitoring the change in landscape is allowing Dr Parcak to make some exciting discoveries.


Parcak’s aim with the aid of satellite imaging is to complete a survey of how Egypt looked 4000 years ago. Her team examined images from satellites orbiting 700km above the Earth’s surface and believe to have discovered a potential 1000 tombs and 3000 ancient settlements. In the documentary not all computer based observations were fruitful. The optimistic fantasy of having discovered a royal tomb in Abydos hidden for millennia seemed a possibility when looking at state of the art images. Abydos located west of the River Nile is considered one of the most important sites for archaeologists in ancient Egypt. Many ancient tombs for the pharaohs and royalty lie at the site including a shrine to Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld. It is also a place that pilgrims visited for thousands of years. However test excavations over three days proved different and no tomb was discovered at the site in question.


Image of pyramids of giza from iss

Pyramids of Giza taken from the International Space Station. If only all ancient Egyptian sites showed up this clearly. (Image credit: NASA)


Parcak and her team are using Near-Infrared imaging to map old Egypt. Satellites record reflected radiation from the infrared part of the electro-magnetic spectrum.  However there is a limitation with this technology. The infrared only reveals objects close to the surface so it is not possible to explore sites located 3m or more under the ground. This is where the traditional vocation of archaeology comes into force and man power is required to search for potential hidden sites.

Also in the documentary Parcak and her team, which are sponsored by NASA, identified a potential seventeen lost or unfinished pyramids. One of these sites is located in Saqqara. Originally overlooked and not though to have been of interest, recent excavations have revealed limestone slabs thought to form the outer wall of this lost pyramid. However, with the recent political tension in Egypt and the state of revolution the country was under just a short time ago, excavations at the site in Saqqara ground to a halt with no sure date for continuation. In the short time of excavation initial findings believe this site to be of great importance for future generations, Egyptologists and in adding to the country’s ancient and fascinating history.

Image of egypt by satellite

Egypt from satellite- Parcak and her team has marked over 3000 ancient sites along the banks of the River Nile. (Image credit: NASA)


During the recent political protests in Egypt, many other well known ancient sites were targeted with some relics believed to have been stolen in the aim of being traded by antiquities hunters or some may have even been destroyed. Parcak was also able to locate these looting sites with the aid of the infrared technology. These sites were marked with well-defined holes in the landscape.  Thankfully the site at Saqqara was not affected by looters during the recent protests.

The era of Indiana Jones’, or indeed people delicately digging back to the past in order to discover amazing hidden artefacts is not dead or gone. It is still fundamental part of historical studies. However, with this new technology scanning such large areas of land quickly, easily revealing traces in a social landscape that our ancestors have left behind, it will play an important part in the future study of archaeology. With global finances no longer on par with that of five or ten years ago, this technology is allowing archaeology to become more focused on a specific area and therefore selective with time and resources. The future of Egypt’s mysterious ancient past as well as the potential of satellite imaging in years to come, Parcak and the University of Alabama have made some exciting discoveries which if excavations are fulfilled may be able to bridge the gaps and improve what remains unknown of Ancient Egypt.

Image of_Martina Redpath

Martina Redpath, ESO (Image credit: Armagh Planetarium)

(Article by Martina Redpath)


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