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Satellite Archaeology: “A New Door to the Past”

by Pubali Mukherjee

Indiana Jones might have searched length and breadths of dark deserted lands in search of historic ruins but our 21st century lady Indiana Jones Dr. Sarah Parcak an eminent space archaeologist, discovered numerous ruins of lost cities and ancient civilization of Egypt sitting in her Lab in Alabama. Dr. Parcak is the founding director of the University of Alabama in Birmingham`s Laboratory for Global Observation. Dr. Parcak has been awarded Ted prize of 2016 worth one million dollars. One of her recent discoveries include the detailed city plan of Tanis; an ancient city of Egypt.A satellite orbiting 700 Kms. above the earth revealed the remains of Tanis which remained hidden under the plethora of modern Egypt. Space archaeologists use the IR (Infra-red) spectrum of the electromagnetic radiation. According to Dr. Sarah the ancient Egyptians used mud bricks for buildings which are denser than the surrounding soils so these mud bricks gave a very subtle change in the spectral signature in high resolution IR imagery. She also adds that determination of such signatures are easier to detect in late winters as during this time the mud brick walls absorb more moisture than usual this showing a subtle change in the reflected signatures, the high organic and phosphorus content gives a distinct “pink” signature, according to Lady Indiana Jones these regions became the prime location where excavation was carried out latter. But it should be kept in mind that a single click of the mouse did not show the path to such game changing discoveries of the decade, Dr. Sarah mentioned that the whole procedure took hundreds and thousands of painstaking hours in Lab along with a numerous trials of algorithms to extract the useful information.

Dr. Sarah Parcak discussing her discoveries in Egypt. (Image courtesy: Ferrell’s Travel Blog)

Satellite image of 2012 Looting Holes in the ground (Image courtesy: DigitalGlobe)

Satellite image of 2010(Image courtesy: DigitalGlobe)

Increased availability of high resolution satellite images and Lidar technology shows a promising and unbelievable future for Satellite Archaeology as it will help historians to understand the past landscape better and reveal many more secrets which lay buried under the plethora of modern civilization. Looting of archaeological sites has become a cause of concern in the past decade, Dr. Parcak is of the opinion that satellite imagery can serve as a cost effective tool to track these lootings.

Scientific studies done using satellite imagery have revealed that archaeological site looting increased after the Arab Spring since 2011.Political crisis created unstable situation in Egypt as well. Antiques from the archaeological pits worth millions of dollars are sold in the black market to fund terrorizing activities in the Middle East. Losing these antiquities is equivalent to losing our past to the terrorism. A detailed study conducted by Dr. Sarah Parcak et al using high resolution satellite imagery of Quickbird, Geoeye, World view-2 and EROS-B within a span of 2009 to 2013.The satellite images revealed several looting pits in three regions El -Hibeh,Lisht, Dashur, Saqqara. These regions were deliberately chosen for the study as they received significant press coverage over the past few years mainly due to high concentration of archaeological sites. Economic instability and drop in tourism since the Arab spring in 2011 has a close relationship with these lootings (Ikram, 2013).A challenging factor in such study is differentiating between looting pits and excavation. Dr. Parcak is of the opinion that excavation is done in square or rectangular 5 meters by 5 meters or of the size 10 meters by 10 meters and Egyptian law requires filling of the excavated areas at the end of each season. Whereas looting pits are circular or oval and they usually have a dark square center.(which are usually exposed tombs).satellite imagery studies have revealed that post January 2011 many of the world heritage sites in Egypt has shown intensified looting. Dr. Parcak has decided to spend her Ted Prize on developing new technologies to curb down these looting.

This is an image of Northern Lisht of the year 2010 showing no looting pit.(Image courtesy: Google Earth)

This is an image of Northern Lisht it shows numerous looting pits in the year 2014(Image courtesy: Google Earth)

This is picture taken by Dr. Sarah Parcak of an archaeological site of Lisht, the arrows shows the dark looting pits.

Satellite imagery does not necessarily reveal what is beneath the earth. It the differences in moisture content between the buried archaeological sites and the earth surface which shows up in the image processing techniques .This discrepancy in the water content between the buried walls and the surface  effects the overlying vegetation, soil and sand, thus a difference in spectral signature is sensed.

Dr. Parcak is of the opinion that Tanis was perhaps the New York of ancient Egypt around 3000 years ago. Revelation of Tanis would help us understand the socio-economic scenario 3000 years back. In other works satellite archaeology will give us a sneak peek into 3000 years back ancient Egypt. Satellite archaeology would help us understand many critical questions about ancient civilization like why the age of pyramids suddenly ended and why did the old kingdom come to end, it would help us understand how major environmental changes that occurred 3000 years back which eventually led to end of the pyramid age in ancient Egypt.


SATPALDA is a privately owned company and a leading provider of satellite imagery and GeoSpatial services to the user community. Established in 2002, SATPALDA has successfully completed wide range of photogrammetric and Remote Sensing Projects.

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