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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Archaeology from space

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How do you find a lost city in a vast landscape? Simply digging around is like looking for a needle in a haystack. In this short TED talk, Sarah Parcak describes how she and her team used satellite data to find an ancient Egyptian city that had been missing for thousands of years. As part of the Middle Kingdom, the city was important for its contributions to art, architecture and religion.

The team already knew that the Nile River used to flow alongside the city, and that there were two pyramids nearby belonging to the two kings who built the city. They analyzed aerial images to reconstruct what the geography looked like nearly four thousand years ago, and used infrared to spot chemical changes to the landscape caused by building materials. Collaborating with Egyptian archaeologists, they did "coring" to test hopeful locations, and found pottery, materials such as agate from a jeweller's workshop, indicating that this was an important city.

Space archaeology is a relatively new field that takes advantage of the bird's eye view that satellites provide, combined with their capacities to see different parts of the light spectrum. It has been in use since the late 1970s, but until recently the high costs of imaging prohibited its extensive use. Instead, aerial photographs were used to identify potential sites for excavation, including photographs taken of Egypt in the 1930s. Now that costs have lowered dramatically, the field is expanding, especially in the rich arena of Egyptology.

Thanks to her TED talk and the BBC documentary Egypt's Lost Cities, Sarah Parcak has become synonymous with space archaeology and lifted its public profile. Sarah has been doing archaeological fieldwork in Egypt since 1999. Her satellite research, which took place in 2003 and 2004, revealed how the team uncovered the possible sites of 17 pyramids, over 1,000 tombs and around 3,000 ancient settlements outside Sa el-Hagar, Egypt. She is also the author of the book Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology, published by Routledge in 2009.


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