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Review of Archaeology from Space

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Reviewer note: I purchased my copy of this book.

Archaeology from Space, written by Sarah Parcak and published by Henry Holt, offers a fascinating look at the use of remote sensing in archaeology. Advances in the quality and affordability of satellite imagery let archaeologists, sometimes with the aid of amateur enthusiasts, identify sites of interest around the world. If further analysis is fruitful, researchers can perform minimally invasive (and relatively inexpensive) investigations at the site to verify their suspicions.

Parcak, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, starts her book with a description of her first visit to Egypt in 1999 as a 20 year-old undergraduate to take part in a dig. She happened to be on the side of the plane with a view of the Great Pyramids as they approached Cairo; judging from the engaging stories she tells throughout the book, she has never lost the sense of wonder and awe she felt in that first moment.

Uncovering Leads from Up High

Advances in remote sensing technologies, both space-based (Parcak’s forte) and land-based, have facilitated exploration and site identification since the first satellite images became available for civilian use in 1972. Higher image quality lets analysts process, combine, and interpret remote sensing data to locate features that could indicate buried sites. Image analysts can also call upon tools such as pan-sharpening, where analysts merge lower-resolution black-and-white images with higher-resolution panchromatic data to create better quality multispectral data (p. 93). As she says, “I know, it sounds like magic. It kind of is.”

Parcak found an ingenious way to accelerate the process for identifying image features that hint at potential sites: crowdsourcing. She drew on the expertise of friends she made in the TED community after her presentation at the February 2016 TED Conference to create the GlobalXplorer (GX) platform. This site showed volunteers satellite images and asked them to flag any pictures the participant felt might contain a feature worth investigating. If enough volunteers flagged an image, a more experienced researcher would analyze it as well. Locating potential sites through crowdsourcing flips the usual script of top-down academic endeavor and offers enthusiasts a way to get involved in archaeological discovery and preservation efforts. And is very cool.

Operating at Ground Level

Translating the leads generated from satellite data into action on the ground involves a host of logistical nightmares. Getting permission from the cultural ministries of the host countries is just the first step through a maze of grant applications, assembling the academic and local teams, scheduling the digs, and hoping that forces beyond your control don’t interfere. Parcak heaps praise on the Egyptian dig managers and local crews she has worked with over the years. In many cases, the team comprises much of a village’s population and has worked with archaeologists for years. These efforts create long-term friendships and deep respect, which Parcak emphasizes several times.

Even with the best crew, there is the not insignificant risk that the clues you’re following will lead you to a dead end. That’s what happened in Parcak’s search for Viking settlements in Newfoundland. She had no experience investigating potential Viking sites, so she did her best to decline the project. She was an expert in pyramids, after all. Despite her protests, the BBC insisted that she was the person to host a documentary series on the effort. Parcak and her husband, Greg (also an archaeologist) put up fierce resistance until an executive producer said they would pay for all research costs.

The spells in the Egyptian Book of the Dead are mere cantrips compared to the raw power of promising to fully fund an academic research project.

As luck would have it, the effort didn’t turn up evidence of any Viking settlements in Newfoundland. It’s never fun to fail, but Parcak learned a lot from the attempt and admits she and Greg would be willing to take another tilt at the windmill if circumstances permit. Their efforts prompted other investigators to pay attention to the region, so who knows what will turn up.

Fighting Time and Our Fellow Humans

Archaeology is a race against time, both literally and figuratively. Environmental changes and the ravages of time threaten to destroy sites naturally, but looting is a clear and present danger to historical preservation. Image analysis shows thousands of pits dug in attempts to find relics that can be sold illegally. Some of those illegally obtained items have turned up in the hands of foreign collectors, with the owners of the Hobby Lobby store chain being fined $3 million for illegally importing cylinder seals from Iraq after being advised by cultural property attorneys that the objects could not legally be brought to the U.S. The seals, meant for display in the Hobby Lobby owners’ Museum of the Bible, were imported anyway and marked as “roof tiles”. Discovery of their import led to the fine and continued analysis of the Museum of the Bible’s collection.

Every excavation, from the first core sample to the most spectacular ruins, tells a story that fills in more of the history of the distant past. Some of those stories include political leaders who usher in the end of dynasties, while others offer insights into how the non-elite lived. Parcak takes the opportunity to write a fictional account of a family struggling to survive during the reign of Pepi II near the end of the Old Kingdom and start of the fractious Intermediate Period. The fiction serves a valid storytelling purpose and adds real value to the book’s overall narrative.


I learned a lot from¬†Archaeology from Space. I was somewhat familiar with ground-based imaging technologies from their use at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland and other sites, but I was surprised at how well-developed and sophisticated the application of satellite analysis is in archaeology. I was also delighted with Professor Parcak’s writing style…it brings her personality to the fore and, despite her fondness for dad jokes (“The silt hits the alluvial fan” as a comment on the reign of Pepi II is one example) she combines the analytical depth of an established academic with the accessible style of a media-savvy presenter into an eminently readable package.

Archaeology from Space offers a comprehensive look at the sophisticated imaging tools available to researchers, describes the many ways those assets can be deployed, and provides terrific perspective on the wide range of efforts required to learn as much as we can about our shared history. Very highly recommended.

Written by curtisfrye

September 6, 2019 at 10:29 pm