Less than 1 percent of ancient Egypt has been discovered and excavated. With population pressures, urbanization, and modernization encroaching, we’re in a race against time. Why not use the most advanced tools we have to map, quantify, and protect our past?
When I was a child growing up in Maine, one of my favorite things to do was to look for sand dollars on the seashores of Maine, because my parents told me it would bring me luck. But you know, these shells, they’re hard to find. They’re covered in sand. They’re difficult to see.
To excavate a pyramid is the dream of every archaeologist.
When a wall is slowly covered over by earth, the materials it’s made from decay and become part of the soils around and above it, sometimes causing vegetation above and next to the wall to grow faster or slower. Satellite imagery helps archaeologists to pick up these subtle changes.
If you really want to be a good archaeologist, you have to understand ancient DNA; you have to understand chemical analysis to figure out the composition of ancient pots. You have to be able to study human remains. You need to be able to do computer processing and, in some cases, computer programming.
There are so many previously unknown sites and structures all over the world. And I think most importantly what satellites help to show us is we’ve actually only found a fraction of a percent of ancient settlements and sites all over the world.
When people initially think of the term ‘space archaeologist,’ they think, ‘Oh, it’s someone who uses satellites to look for alien settlements on Mars or in outer space,’ but the opposite is true – we’re actually looking for evidence of past human life on planet earth.
When you think about the scale of human populations all over the world and the fact that there’s so much here, really, the only way to be able to visualize that is to pull back in space… It allows us to see hidden temples and tombs and pyramids and even entire settlements.
I give my grandfather, Dr Harold Young, a forestry Professor at the University of Maine, full credit for my career path. He pioneered the use of aerial photography in forestry in the 1950s, and we think he worked as a spy for the CIA during the Cold War, mapping Russian installations.
Before doing fieldwork in Middle Egypt, I analyzed satellite imagery to determine exactly where I wanted to go. Within three weeks, I found about 70 sites. If I had approached this as a traditional foot survey, it would have taken me three and a half years.
You just pull back for hundreds of miles using the satellite imagery, and all of a sudden this invisible world become visible. You’re actually able to see settlements and tombs – and even things like buried pyramids – that you might not otherwise be able to see.
There’s even an aircraft sensor system that sends down hundreds of thousands of pulses of light measured at different return rates. It allows you to literally strip away vegetation and see entire cities beneath the rain forest canopy. This is the unbelievable future of archaeology.
We have so many issues with overpopulation and urbanization and site looting. And this isn’t just Egypt. This is everywhere in the world, even in America. So we only have a limited amount of time left before many archaeological sites all over the world are destroyed.
Itjtawy was ancient Egypt’s capital for over four hundred years, at a period of time called the Middle Kingdom about four thousand years ago. The site is located in the Faiyum of Egypt, and the site is really important because in the Middle Kingdom there was this great renaissance for ancient Egyptian art, architecture and...
The only technology that can ‘see’ beneath the ground is radar imagery. But satellite imagery also allows scientists to map short- and long-term changes to the Earth’s surface. Buried archaeological remains affect the overlying vegetation, soils and even water in different ways, depending on the landscapes you’re examining.
We’ve found that patterns of site looting have increased between 500 and 1000 percent since the start of the Arab Spring. Now this is a problem as old as human beings. People were looting tombs 5,000 years ago in Egypt as soon as people were buried, but the problem is only getting worse and worse.