‘Archaeology From Space’: How Remote Sensing Helps

Science
Image: Melanie Meadors, Cover: Henry Holt & Co.

Archaeology from space? How can a subject we think of as very hands-on be done from thousands of miles away?  With remote sensing, using satellite imagery, and more!

Environmental scientists and geographers use remote sensing all the time to see the areas they are studying from high above. It helps them to track changes and see new developments, to see problems as they arise, and to see progress as it happens. People have used it to find illegal gold mining along the Amazon River, to measure the amounts of forest that has been burned over the past year, and to look at patterns in annual flooding. But did you know archaeology can be done using imagery from satellites, too? Sarah Parcak knows, and she explains all about it in her recent book, Archaeology From Space.

I picked this book up because I was interested in the remote sensing aspect of it. Like I said, we use this technology in environmental science. Very quickly, however, I remembered the me that was obsessed with Indiana Jones and The Mummy. Parcak makes it impossible to NOT feel enthusiastic about archaeology. With this book, she brings you into the field with her, from Scandinavia to Egypt to Peru and beyond—WAY beyond, into orbit itself. There are heroic archeologists who tirelessly look for clues not only in the dirt but also on computer screens, and villains in the form of looters and the black market antiquity trade.

Image: Henry Holt & Co.

It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition, ancient relics and space-age technology, but Parcak explains very well why it’s a perfect match, especially in these times. She discusses what remote sensing is (using satellite imagery, and also aerial photographs, and processing them in such a way that make certain features stand out—it’s used for a great many things these days, from spying on other countries to some of the things I discussed above). Parcak explains that this technology allows scientists to see sites as they couldn’t when they were on the ground. From up above, and especially with tech that allows different types of ground cover to be shown in ways our human eyes can’t see naturally, archaeological sites can be found more easily, can be studied more thoroughly, and it can save a lot of time—years—in fieldwork and expenses. Knowing where to dig can make the difference between a successful year in the field and a complete failure.

Parcak talks about how time is running out for so many archaeological sites. Looters do their own digs and steal cultural artifacts, which means we lose entire chunks of our history forever. Once artifacts are taken out of their site, we can never learn as much about them ever again. Anything about them from the moment they leave the group is unreliable. It’s vital that sites are protected, and with remote sensing, archaeologists and others can track what is happening in various sites around the world. Looting pits can be seen, and sites can then be protected. Another thing that is affecting archaeology in the field right now is climate change—with the site being flooded by heavier rains in some areas, or eroded by cycles of drought and wind and then heavy rains, there’s a race against nature to find sites and preserve what’s within them. Remote sensing can help with that as well.

Unlike many other books about archaeology, in Archaeology From Space, Parcak talks a lot about the future of the field and what it holds. She discusses opportunities that are out there for aspiring archaeologists and has a very hopeful yet realistic viewpoint that I found a refreshing change. She talks about skills people can develop if they want to be in the field, and she discusses the future of the field very candidly. She doesn’t shy away from discussing the diversity (or lack thereof) in the field and discusses why having different voices and eyes are so important.

One of my favorite things about Archaeology From Space is that Parcak is a nerd just like the rest of us. She doesn’t hide the fact that she is a huge Indiana Jones fan—she owns it. And throughout the book, she mentions not only tidbits from that fandom but nods to Marvel and other things as well. She is definitely one of us, and it is so refreshing to see someone “real” who isn’t poo-pooing fandom but embracing it. It makes this book not only informative but a fun read for everyone.

Another favorite thing is that Parcak offers real insight into how normal laypeople can become a part of things as well, through opportunities in citizen science. She has started a program called GlobalXplorer where anyone can become an archaeologist in training, from teens to great-grandmas.

I highly recommend this book to any fan of archaeology, remote sensing and satellite tech, and readers in general. You can also listen to Parcak talk about her work on her TED Talk. And be sure to follow her on Twitter! You won’t be disappointed.

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