Whenever someone learns that I am an archaeologist, whether it’s at a party, a conference, or even when I saw a new doctor last week, there is an almost inevitable follow up question: “You’re an archaeologist… like Indiana Jones?” Depending on my mood, my subsequent answer may vary, but there’s no denying that George Lucas’ film franchise put archaeology on the pop culture map.
As fun as the exploits of Dr. Jones can be, his life is rather different from that of a real archaeologist. Real archaeology takes deliberate and careful steps to amass every scrap of information possible, rather than say … destroying an entire temple to pick up just one statue. Ultimately, archaeology studies people, not things, a fact that shines through in the new book, Archaeology From Space by Egyptologist and TED Prize Winner Sarah Parcak.
Parcak has built her reputation in archaeology with her groundbreaking work analyzing satellite imagery and revealing the wealth of archaeological information that it encodes. Using high definition and multi-spectral imagery she has discovered everything from individual tombs to entire cities. There are simply some things that are far easier to see with a bird’s eye view then when you are stuck down on dusty old Earth.
At the beginning of ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom Period, the Pharaoh Amenemhet had moved the state’s capital to a new city, Itj-Tawy, along a branch of the Nile delta. The site’s rough location had long been known to Egyptologists, but the city itself was lost under 4,000 years of Nile silt. Parcak took this as a challenge! By making use of data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission and combining it with Landsat satellite imagery, she was able to map a long buried channel of the Nile river in the approximate location of Itj-Tawy. Scanning along this ancient river course, one likely spot for a city stood out to and sure enough when ground crews excavated cores from the site, Early Middle Kingdom remains popped up right away revealing the likely placement of the ancient city.
Archaeology From Space, however, is about much more than the technical analysis of digital images. Parcak told me that she “wanted people to know how archaeology works, how we reconstruct past worlds.” To do this, much of her book is written as a memoir that takes readers on a tour of Parcak’s own career working as an archaeologist, recounting not just where she was and what the excavations revealed but telling us how those details illuminate human lives from the ancient world.
The trace of a fingerprint found on a piece of pottery leads to the vision of a potter with “sweat on his brow, bent over the wheel he rotated by hand.” The invasion of Egypt by the Persian King Artaxerxes III in 343 BC is told not with a clinical eye of military maneuvers, but with an eye to the burned statues the army left behind and the priests who had tended those icons for all their lives. Even the fall of Egypt’s Old Kingdom is viewed through the eyes of the residents of Tell Ibrahim Awad who suffered through starvation and disease as the state crumbled around them.
Yet, there are moments in Archaeology From Space that give me pause for thought. Parcak’s enthusiasm for satellite imagery is infectious, but even she admits that the findings can be misleading and must be examined on the ground. Maya archaeologists faced these woes in the 1990s when satellite imagery seemed to suggest that ancient Maya cities were surrounded by extensive systems of artificially raised agricultural fields. Yet, excavation after excavation failed to confirm the majority of these alleged artificial features. The “bird’s eye view” of satellites is undeniably helpful, yet it is simply not enough on its own.
More irksome to me is the repeated use of the term “space archaeology” to describe the analysis of aerial photographs. Archaeologists have been studying and using such imagery for more than a century to better understand ancient landscapes. Modern high-resolution multispectral satellite images certainly provide a better view then old black and white photos snapped by a pilot as they whizzed by, but the analytical goals are the same. Plus, archaeologists like Alice Gorman and Justin Walsh are actually conducting space archaeology by studying the material remains left behind by more than five decades of space exploration.
Nevertheless, Archaeology From Space presents a lively and engaging narrative about not only what its like to be an archaeologist, but how archaeologists use the data they gather to understand the ancient world. This is where Indiana Jones really got archaeology wrong. It is never about the single, solitary, special object, rather it is always about the thousands of broken pieces that we find and the context they create.
Parcak estimates that there may be upwards of 50 million unidentified archaeological sites in the world, which is to say that our work studying the ancient world has barely begun. After winning the TED Prize in 2016, she launched GlobalXplorer, a citizen science initiative that invites people from around the world to participate in finding each of these 50 million sites. With an internet connection and a laptop, anyone can join the research and help start us down the path of discovering the stories of our ancestors.
If you ever wanted to be an archaeologist, now is the time and this is the book for you!