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4 Amazing Archaeological Discoveries Spotted by Satellite

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Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Since human flight was first possible, aerial archaeology has assisted researchers in uncovering previously unknown sites that are imperceptible from the ground. Today, thanks to advanced technology, remote sensing has moved higher above the Earth: Aerial archaeology is now sometimes space archaeology. By examining maps of the planet's surface taken from space, laptop-based Indiana Joneses can search vast areas for anomalies that could indicate evidence of the human past hidden for centuries. Below are four amazing archaeological discoveries spotted from space.

1. 3100 SETTLEMENTS, 1000 LOST TOMBS, AND 17 PYRAMIDS ACROSS EGYPT

Tanis ruins
Michael Lusk, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist and Egyptologist who since 2003 has discovered numerous archaeological sites across Egypt, all through her computer. Parcak specializes in analyzing satellite images taken from 400 miles overhead, processing the pictures to highlight parts of the electromagnetic spectrum the naked human eye cannot see. This allows her to note anomalies that could denote archaeological sites hidden underground.

It is highly specialized work. The tiny blips on the maps would mean nothing to the uninitiated, but to Parcak they provide clues that have led her to discover the location of 17 potential pyramids, some 3100 settlements, and 1000 lost tombs across Egypt. Parcak also used remote sensing to identify the location of the lost city of Tanis, which gained notoriety when it was featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The network of streets and houses of Tanis are completely invisible at ground level, and yet using infrared satellite images, Parcak was able to show the massive extent of the ancient settlement.

Parcak gave a hugely popular TED talk on space archaeology in 2012, and in 2015 was awarded the 2016 $1 million TED prize. She's used the money to create the citizen science platform GlobalXplorer, which allows anyone to analyze images from space in order to discover more lost archaeological sites across the globe—and spot evidence of looters.

2. THE FINAL DAYS OF THE MAYAN CIVILIZATION

Temple IV in Tikal mayan ruins
Guillén Pérez, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The heavily forested Petén region of northern Guatemala is home to some of the most important Maya ruins in Central America, including Tikal. Archaeologists have been working with NASA using remote sensing to examine the Petén jungle from space in the hope of identifying lost sites associated with the Maya, whose culture reached the height of its power and influence from the 7th to the 9th centuries—and then collapsed around the turn of the 10th century.

In order to gain a greater understanding of this collapse, Tom Sever, the first archaeologist to work for NASA, has been analyzing images taken from an agency satellite program known as SERVIR which was launched from Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama in 2005. Sever has used the images to further his theory—one also promoted by Jared Diamond in his popular book Collapse but not accepted by all Maya scholars—that what brought down the Maya was self-induced ecological disaster. The images indicate that the Maya used slash-and-burn agricultural practices that led to severe deforestation. They also drained the wetlands known as bajos, as evidenced by images of ancient drains, causing drought and resulting in an increase in temperature. The fate of the Maya is now often held up as a prime example of the risk of deforestation and climate change.

3. HOW AND WHERE THE EASTER ISLAND MOAI WERE MOVED

moaisin the hillside of the Rano Raraku volcano in Easter Island
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

The iconic statues on Easter Island have fascinated archaeologists since they were first noted by a Dutch explorer in 1722. But the biggest mystery is how the Rapa Nui managed to transport these enormous monoliths from the quarries where they were made to numerous sites across the island without the help of large animals or cranes.

In 2012, Carl Lipo of California State University and Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii used satellite imagery to trace the ancient path of the stones from the quarry to various points around the island, identifying seven major roads [PDF]. The discovery of these routes led Lipo and Hunt to suggest that the upright statues might have been “walked” to their destinations, using ropes to tilt and turn the monoliths into motion. To test out their theory, the National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council funded an experiment in which a concrete 10-foot, 5-ton copy of a moai was constructed. Using strong ropes, 18 people were able to fairly easily walk the massive statue a few hundred yards.

4. THE LOST CITY OF IRAM/UBAR

the lost city of ubar ruins

Five thousand years ago, a grand city in the deserts of Oman formed the center of the valuable frankincense trade. Known as Iram or Ubar, the legendary city was mentioned in both the Koran and The Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a. The Arabian Nights). Yet no modern trace of this once great city could be found. Notable explorer T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") referred to it as “the Atlantis of the sands,” and some historians began to doubt it had ever existed. The mystery of the lost city was sufficiently tantalizing to attract the notice of NASA, who agreed to scan the area with a shuttle radar system after being approached by filmmaker and explorer Nicholas Clapp.

A Challenger space mission in 1984 provided the perfect opportunity to scan the desert of Oman from space, searching for geological features hiding under the sand. The resultant pictures revealed ancient caravan routes, which would have been packed down over hundreds of years by the camel trains traveling between trade hubs, the intersections of these roads providing clues as to potential locations for a city. Using this information, archaeologists began to dig at promising locations, and in 1991 Clapp and his team uncovered a many-towered fortress (like that described in the Koran), which would have been the home of the king and hub for the storage of frankincense. This led them to believe that they had finally uncovered the lost city of Ubar.

Ancient sources claimed that the city had disappeared into the Earth after its citizens angered Allah with their lavish and sinful way of life. Evidence from the site in Oman suggests that the destruction of the city occurred due to the appearance of a giant sinkhole, explaining how this once great city was lost to the sands.

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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9.7-Million-Year-Old Teeth Discovered in Germany Have Scientists Puzzled
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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images

Scientists in Germany say they've found ape teeth that are surprisingly similar to the teeth of an early human relative dating to millions of years later. As the Independent reports, the team of experts unearthed a pair of 9.7-million-year-old fossilized teeth that, they say, have some of the same features as the teeth of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum in Mainz found the fossils a year ago in nearby Eppelsheim but have waited until now to publish their findings—partly because they weren't sure what to make of the puzzling discovery. Of the two teeth, a canine and a molar, the canine tooth bears a striking resemble to that from "Lucy," one of the first known ancient human relatives to walk upright, who lived in Africa some 3.2 million years ago.

"They are clearly ape teeth," researcher Herbert Lutz told local media in a press conference. "Their characteristics resemble African finds that are four to five million years younger than the fossils excavated in Eppelsheim. This is a tremendous stroke of luck, but also a great mystery."

They dated the fossils using the remains of an extinct horse which was found buried in the same spot. In their paper, the scientists describe the canine’s similarities to other remains found in the lower half of the globe, but they still don't have answers to many of the questions the report raises. They plan to continue examining the teeth for clues. The public will also have a chance to see the teeth for themselves, first at a state exhibition this month, and then at Mainz's Natural History Museum.

[h/t Independent]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Divers in Michigan Discover 93-Year-Old Shipwreck at the Bottom of Lake Huron
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iStock

On the evening of September 21, 1924, the cargo steamship SS Clifton met its end in Lake Huron while carrying a 2200-ton load of crushed stone from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin to Detroit. The vessel was likely caused to sink by a gale, and the disaster resulted in the deaths of 25 crew members. Bits of wreckage were later found, but the freighter’s resting place ultimately remained a mystery. Now, more than 90 years later, the Associated Press reports that the SS Clifton’s location at the bottom of the Great Lake has been confirmed.

Scuba diver David Trotter—who’s reportedly located more than 90 Great Lakes shipwrecks—discovered the SS Clifton in September 2016, following a 30-year search. He waited to publicly share the news until his company, Undersea Research Associates, was able to investigate and document the steamship's remains last summer.

Trotter had spent decades searching for the SS Clifton, but finding it was ultimately a matter of serendipity, he says. In June 2016, Trotter and his team were surveying two wrecks—the schooners Venus and Minnedosa, which sank in 1887 and 1905, respectively—when they spotted yet another submerged ship. They logged its coordinates, but only managed to get a closer look several months later, in September 2016, during a quick dive trip.

GoPro footage confirmed that the ship in question was a whaleback steamer, a unique type of 19th century cargo steamship with low, rounded hulls, decks, and deckhouses, which were designed to cut down on water and wind resistance. “The Clifton was the only whaleback ship left in Lake Huron that hadn’t already been found,” Trotter said, according to WZZM-TV. “There was no question we had found the Clifton.”

The USS Clifton sits on its side, around 100 miles south of where some shipwreck hunters initially believed it had sunk. Its bow is shattered, likely from the collision with the lake’s bottom, while the stern, inside paneling, and architecture remain well-preserved. Divers also spotted an unopened suitcase, and signage inside the ship.

So far, there isn't any clear mechanical evidence as to why the USS Clifton sank, but Trotter's team did find “that the self-unloading mechanism was still in position,” he says. This was “an interesting discovery because we now realize that the unloading mechanism didn’t break free, causing the Clifton to have instability, resulting in her sinking.”

Trotter hopes to explore the USS Clifton’s engine room and cabins, and to bring the suitcase ashore to examine its contents. Until then, he can remain satisfied that he’s finally solved a mystery that had eluded him for much of his career.

[h/t Associated Press]

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