How Archaeologists Peer From Space Into Our Past

Today’s guest review features Dr. Sarah Parcak’s book Archaeology From Space (July 2019), about the emerging field that uses satellite technology to remotely discover ancient remains. I am thrilled that Erin Becker, who has archaeology experience herself, is our reviewer for Dr. Parcak’s book.

Photo by Erin Becker

About the reviewer: Erin Becker is the Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville, NY. Her research focuses on the convergence of women, labor, and the environment through a global extractive maritime economy. Erin earned her BA in Anthropology and History in 2017 and her MA in History in 2018. Her archaeological field experiences during her undergraduate studies took her to the forests of Southeastern Connecticut, the wilds of California and Nevada’s Western Great Basin, and the suburbs of Long Island. Follow her on Twitter @ErinE_Becker.

Photo courtesy of Erin Becker

Author Sarah Parcak is an award-winning space archaeologist. She studies satellite imagery sets to find and map potential archaeological sites and features which would have otherwise been hidden. It’s fitting, therefore, that her book’s cover displays an image of Earth taken from space. A dashed line connects a satellite to an image of an artifact in the hand of an archaeologist at a field site, introducing readers to the link Parcak spends 230 pages tracing out.

When I flipped the book open to the introduction and read the first line – “My entire life is in ruins. Quite literally. No, this is not a cry-for-help book, nor a journey of self-discovery. I am an archaeologist” – I knew I had made a good choice. I settled in with a cup of decaf coffee, a pen and paper, and got ready to learn from the modern-day Indiana Jones.

Parcak walks her readers through important concepts in archaeology with frankness. On the topic of context, she states, “finding burned pots next to a flat area that has a stone oven and is covered in plant debris and seeds might indicate an ancient kitchen. If we miss things, or worse, if the site is looted and the pot surfaces for sale, all we can say about it is that it is a ‘blackened pot’.” Without context, archaeologists lose the opportunity to make informed interpretations of artifacts and their place in everyday life. 

When I worked as an archaeology educator teaching archaeology to third, fourth, and fifth grade students, I often explained the importance of context through puzzles. As we stood around open excavation units, I’d tell my students that every excavation unit was a puzzle and every artifact (or ecofact, soil characteristic, tree root, etc) was a puzzle piece. I asked them if they had ever tried to put together a puzzle without all of the pieces. The picture will not be complete. When artifacts are removed without proper documentation, they lose their context – and then we’ve all lost a piece to our archaeology puzzle or ‘history mystery’. Even when discussing serious topics – like a potential catastrophic loss of contextual data due to a wayward animal – Parcak demystifies the daily work of archaeologists on the ground with humor.

For example: “When our team worked in Sinai in 2004, I came back to the site after breakfast one day to find that our site drawings had become the midmorning snack of a goat from a nearby town,” writes Parcak. “He ran away, and I tackled him, saving about 70 percent of the plans. It took us hours to redraw everything. At the season’s end, we had a feast, courtesy of our lovely Bedouin workforce, and the pièce de résistance was roasted goat. No points for guessing which one. I chewed with great relish.”

One of her most compelling discussions centers around looting. She notes that “where the ground is strewn with human remains, mummy wrappings, and recently broken pottery from looters, I know we have lost part of history forever”. Looting removes artifacts from their context.  She argues that we must understand the mechanism of looting if we are to counter it. Much like in the illegal wildlife trade and the drug trade, looting is a large-scale operation with multiple levels.

“It is a desperate crime,” writes Parcak. “Locals may sell to criminal elements, but they loot out of need to support their families.” She also traces out potential solutions: engagement with youth and partnering with key stakeholders from communities near archaeological sites. 

Parcak concludes her book with a discussion about crowdsourcing science. After being nominated for a $1 million TED prize, Parcak and her team created Global Xplorer (GX), “an online, citizen science, crowdsourcing, satellite- imagery platform that allows anyone in the world, whether 5 or 105 years old, to help in the process of locating and protecting ancient ruins.” Users from around the world identified over 19,000 previously unrecorded real archaeological sites in Peru with a 90% success rate. 

It quickly became clear to me that Parcak’s book is an incredible resource for both archaeology students and the general public. Not only does she trace out the development and utility of space archaeology, but she also discusses the importance of context, the process of becoming an archaeologist, the pitfalls of academia, the power of stories, possibilities for the future, issues of representation and diversity, privilege in training, looting and stolen heritage, and the significance of crowdsourcing. It’s an incredible amount of topics to cover in such a short and easy-to-read book. She also ruminates on the lack of diversity in archaeology, and the field’s data accessibility problem.

Parcak takes her readers to Skagafjörður Church in North Iceland to show how medieval sagas, coring techniques, and satellite data can be used in conversation with each other to identify Viking outbuildings. She brings her readers to Point Rosee in Newfoundland to demonstrate satellites could be an important new tool for archaeologists working there. She explores Tanis, a Nile Delta of Egypt, with satellites and discusses the importance of studying past civilizations in regards to navigating our own.

And she brings life to Meryt, one of 74 individuals excavated from the cemetery at Tell Ibrahim Awad in lower Egypt. Employing a combination of remote sensing, ancient Egyptian literature, and excavation to tell the story of a young girl who lived during the fall of the Old Kingdom, Parcak speculates on the archaeology of the future: will future archaeologists use hyperspectral imagery, thermal imaging, and machine learning to detect previously unknown sites?

Reading Archaeology from Space was like going on an adventure with a quirky, passionate, and well-versed guide. I loved every second of it. 


If you enjoyed this review, leave a comment thanking Erin or share this post on Twitter. If you are interested in writing a guest review for Read More Science, get in touch with Sarah through the Contact page.

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