03 February 2023
What lies beneath: Satellite archaeology in the Middle East
Published online 30 August 2017
Sarah Parcak on the ethics and future trajectory of space archaeology in the region.
For almost 20 years, Sarah Parcak, professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, has combed through satellite images of Egypt and the Middle East to find clues to ancient landscapes.
Parcak’s resume is impressive. She won the $1 million 2016 TED prize, has written a seminal textbook on satellite archaeology, as well as numerous other scholarly publications on the topic.
She’s also the director of the Joint Lisht Mission with Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities, excavating the extensive ancient cemetery and Middle-Kingdom pyramids of Lisht, 65km south of Cairo.
Nature Middle East asks Parcak about her expertise with satellite archaeology in the region.
What is satellite archaeology or space archaeology?
It is remote sensing using both airborne and space platforms as different ways to look at the Earth’s surface for things that may or may not be recognizable to the naked eye, and to recognize patterns that may indicate where past human remains are located.
It’s a relatively new, and yet familiar field. A lot of people don’t realize that the military started using aerial photography and satellites because of archaeology. Back in WWI when planes started to be used in the Middle East, a lot of amateur archaeologists and archaeologists generally slipped in and took pictures of the archaeological sites they were seeing. And once the military folks saw them, they realized they could use planes to see things.
So archaeologists kind of started remote sensing generally, and now we rely on the satellites the military has ended up developing.
Satellite archaeology and the military seem to have been linked for a long time. Are the satellites used in archaeology in the Middle East mostly from the military?
They’re not. The majority of satellites archaeologists use for long-term landscape changes come from NASA, and the great news about NASA imagery is that it is free. For commercial satellite data, most of us use DigtialGlobe, the largest provider of high-resolution satellite imagery in the world. They’re based in Colorado. Most often it is online and it’s very easy to get. If you’re an archaeologist working at a site or a region, you can get high resolution satellite data of you site for a few hundred dollars.
You’ve been doing satellite archaeology for a long time and have seen it change and grow. Where do you see the field going?
I think it’s become standard archaeological practice now. Certainly every archaeologist has the ability to use Google Earth. Even though a few hundred dollars isn’t free, most projects can afford to buy a high resolution satellite map of their site. So, I think there is a lot more open mindedness about it.
I think the future is already happening, a lot more people are using drones on their sites, you can get great maps really quickly. There are sensor systems now that you can out on your drones — so things like LIDAR, a laser mapping system or hyper-spectral sensors for satellites so you can see different parts of the light spectrum. With a hyper-spectral camera on a Lidar or a drone, you can see the entire light spectrum, or most of it. So, I think the future’s going to be a lot more drone mapping.
There are also political limits to using drones. Many counties are not too comfortable with that.
Yes. For example, you can’t use drones in Egypt and I respect the rules and regulations in that case. Or, you could be in a war-torn area where you can’t fly a drone for obvious reasons. So, in that case, very high-resolution satellites sensors are going to be essential.
DigitalGlobe’s latest satellite called World View 3 and now World View 4 has a resolution of 0.3m, which is amazing - it’s 11 inches. […] The quality of the data is extraordinary.
We’ve been able to map the entirety of sites in the [Nile] Delta. And the quality is just as good as magentometry or ground penetrating radar […] When we’re applying for grants, [we’re] able to say, “this is the exact part of the site we want to work at because there is a temple or a palace or a middle-class house and here’s the proof.” That’s amazing and it’s certainly going to change the field. And what happens when we have all this data? There is more data than we know how to get our heads around. There aren’t great methodologies.
It’s all exciting, but there are huge ethical issues to contend with. Let’s just say you’re an archaeologist and you’re working at a site whether it’s Egypt, or Jordan, or elsewhere. You make an amazing discovery, find a new place, or part of the temple. People know you’re in the field, and hear rumours that you found something amazing. What’s to stop an unethical person from getting a satellite image to expose what you’ve found? What are the rules? Certainly in Egypt any new discoveries have to be announced by the Ministry, that’s the law. And there are similar regulations in a lot of the world. So what happens when that discovery leaks? How do you protect it?
So, could looters use satellite archaeology to learn where to look?
They’re using Google Earth, already.
Like with any scientific advancement or improvement in technology, it can be used in many different ways.
Right. I guess the good news is that Google Earth is great, but you can zoom in and out. That’s the limit of what you can do. And it’s not like anybody can go on DigitalGlobe.com and find an image and order it. You have to fill out paperwork. There are definitely checks in place so this data isn’t available to everyone.
For the Middle East, it seems that governmental antiquities organizations will have active satellite or remotes sensing and imaging departments within their administrations. Is this something that you see happening?
For example, the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt, already has a department that deals with mapping. There are already people who are Geographic Information System specialists. But the challenge of course is the number of individuals who are trained and the access to data, so this is why these joint missions [with the ministry] are so important because they provide official and government approved mechanisms through which you could share data with the ministry.
In this episode of Nature Middle East Podcast, Sarah Parcak talks about how war and conflict are creating a sense for urgency for scientists in the field.