4 Amazing Archaeological Discoveries Spotted by Satellite

Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images
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.

How Thomas Jefferson's Obsession With Mastodons Partly Fueled the Lewis and Clark Expedition

James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the 1800s, American mastodons—prehistoric relatives of the elephant—had been extinct for roughly 10,000 years. Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that, though. The Founding Father dreamed of finding a living, breathing mastodon in America, and this lofty goal ended up being a motivating force throughout much of his life. Even during the Revolutionary War, and even when he ran for the highest office in the land, he had mastodons on the mind. Jefferson was convinced that the hairy beasts still roamed the continent, probably somewhere on the uncharted western frontier, and he was determined to find them—or, at the very least, enlist a couple of intrepid explorers by the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to do the hunting on his behalf.

The Corps of Discovery departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804 and headed into the great unknown of the Louisiana Purchase in search of an all-water route to the Pacific. The adventurers made many discoveries on the two-and-a-half-year round trip—mapping the geography of the region and logging hundreds of species of flora and fauna unknown to science—but the directive to look for mastodons is a little-known footnote to their famous expedition.

At the start of their trip, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “the remains and accounts of any [animal] which may be deemed rare or extinct.” Although he didn’t mention mastodons specifically—at least not in any of the written correspondence on record—the two explorers were all too familiar with Jefferson’s mammoth ambition. “Surely Jefferson still had the M-word in mind, and surely Lewis knew it,” author Robert A. Saindon writes in Explorations Into the World of Lewis and Clark, Volume 2.

Jefferson had long been interested in paleontology, but his mastodon obsession was fueled by a longstanding beef he had with a French naturalist who thought America’s animals and people were puny. Jefferson’s bone-collecting hobby quickly evolved into a mission to assert America’s dominance in the Western world and prove that it was "a land full of big and beautiful things," as journalist Jon Mooallem put it in his book, Wild Ones. Indeed, there are worse ways to become a political and cultural heavyweight than to prove your country is home to a 12,000-pound monster.

A Rivalry Forms

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

François-Hubert Drouais, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

For much of his adult life, Jefferson was an avid collector of fossils and bones. At various points in time, he owned a bison fossil, elk and moose antlers, giant ground sloth fossils, and naturally, a number of mastodon bones.

Though his original interest may have been purely academic, Jefferson's exposure to the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon fanned the flames of his obsession. Buffon’s “Theory of American Degeneracy,” published in the 1760s, postulated that the people and animals of America were small and weak because the climate (he assumed, without much evidence) was too cold and wet to encourage growth.

Jefferson was furious. He formulated a rebuttal, which partly drew attention to the inconsistencies in Buffon's beliefs about the mastodon. Buffon suggested that the American mastodon was a combination of elephant and hippopotamus bones, but because Jefferson had inspected the bones, he knew that the measurements didn't match those of previously known species. Instead, Jefferson argued that the bones belonged to a different animal entirely. (Although they’re distinct species, woolly mammoths and mastodons were lumped into the same category at the time, and were called one of two names: mammoths or the American incognitum.)

“The skeleton of the mammoth … bespeaks an animal of five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant,” Jefferson wrote. He later scaled back his argument a bit, adding, “But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings.”

He didn’t just believe that mastodons had existed at one point in time, though—he believed they were still out there somewhere. It wasn’t unusual for thinkers and scientists of Jefferson's era to assume that bones were evidence of a still-living species. After all, dinosaurs had not yet been discovered (though their bones had been found, no one would call them dinosaurs until the early 19th century), and the concept of extinction wasn’t widely accepted or understood. Dominant religious beliefs also reinforced the idea that God’s creations couldn't be destroyed.

For his part, Jefferson believed that animals fell into a natural order, and that removing a link in “nature’s chain” would throw the whole system into disarray. Taking the tone of a philosopher, he once questioned, “It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?”

This position may have been partly fueled by wishful thinking. Jefferson believed that tracking down a living mastodon would be the most satisfying way to stick it to Buffon and say, “I told you so.” (In the meantime, though, he had to settle for a dead moose, which he sent overseas to the Frenchman’s doorstep in Paris to prove that large animals did, in fact, exist in America.)

The Hunt Continues

A painting of The Exhumation of the Mastadon

This 1806 painting by Charles Willson Peale, titled The Exhumation of the Mastadon, shows mastodon bones being excavated from a water-filled pit.

Charles Willson Peale, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In late 1781, Jefferson wrote to his buddy George Rogers Clark in the Ohio valley and asked him to fetch some mastodon teeth from a nearby "mastodon boneyard" in northern Kentucky called Big Bone Lick. “Were it possible to get a tooth of each kind, that is to say a foretooth, grinder, &c, it would particularly oblige me,” Jefferson wrote. Clark politely explained that the possibility of Native American attacks made this task impossible, but he was able to procure a thighbone, jaw bone, grinder, and tusk from travelers who had managed to visit the frontier.

However, Jefferson didn’t receive Clark's reply until six months later in August 1782 (because of, you know, the Revolutionary War). Although the war technically didn't end until the following year, peace talks between the two sides were nearing a conclusion, and everybody knew it. With an end to the conflict in sight, Jefferson doubled down on his request for mastodon bones. He wrote to Clark, “A specimen of each of the several species of bones now to be found is to me the most desireable object in Natural History, and there is no expence of package or of safe transportation which I will not gladly reimburse to procure them safely.”

Later, while serving as America’s first Secretary of State, Jefferson supported a proposed Western exploration that would have preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the expedition was called off, Jefferson had instructed the would-be explorer, French botanist André Michaux, to look for mastodons along the way. He wrote to Michaux in 1793, “Under the head of Animal history, that of the Mammoth is particularly recommended to your enquiries.”

Even when Jefferson turned his attention to national politics and ran for president against incumbent John Adams in 1800, he was still thinking about mastodons. His preoccupations were so widely known that his opponents, the Federalists, called him a “mammoth infidel” in reference to his unusual hobby and supposed secular leanings. As an 1885 article in the Magazine of American History recalled, “When Congress was vainly trying to untangle the difficulties arising from the tie vote between Jefferson and [Aaron] Burr, when every politician at the capital was busy with schemes and counter-schemes, this man, whose political fate was balanced on a razor’s edge, was corresponding with [physician and professor] Dr. [Caspar] Wistar in regard to some bones of the mammoth which he had just procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County.”

Once president, Jefferson used his office to further the field of paleontology. Not long after he was elected, he loaned one of the Navy’s pumps to artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who wanted to extract a pile of freshly unearthed mastodon bones from a water-filled pit. It ultimately became the first fossilized skeleton to ever be assembled in America.

Of course, there is also evidence that Jefferson silently hoped Lewis and Clark would stumble upon a living mastodon during their expedition, which formally kicked off in 1804 and ended in 1806. That, as we now know, was impossible. After their return, Jefferson sent William Clark on a second assignment to collect artifacts from Big Bone Lick. He sent three big boxes of bones back to Jefferson, who got to work unloading and studying them in the East Room of the White House—the same room where John and Abigail Adams once hung their laundry.

Still, something wasn’t quite right, and Jefferson may have known it even then. By 1809, the animal in question had been identified and given the name mastodon, and Jefferson started to reverse some of his previously held opinions. In a letter to William Clark, he conceded that the mastodon was not a carnivore, as he once believed, but an herbivore. "Nature seems not to have provided other food sufficient for him," he wrote, "and the limb of a tree would be no more to him than a bough of cotton tree to a horse."

Accepting the Mastodon’s Fate

Thomas Jefferson
National Archive/Newsmakers

The fact that Lewis and Clark never spotted any giants roaming out West may have helped Jefferson accept the inevitable: Mastodons had gone extinct long ago. Waxing poetic in a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.”

Although he was unsuccessful in his quest to find a living mastodon, Jefferson made other meaningful contributions to the field of paleontology. The fossils of another mysterious creature he believed to be a lion were later revealed to be that of a giant ground sloth. He named it Megalonyx (Greek for “great claw”), and in 1822, the extinct creature was renamed Megalonyx jeffersonii in Jefferson’s honor.

Nowadays, the ground sloth fossils—and several other items that formed the "cabinet of curiosities" Jefferson displayed at his Monticello estate—are part of The Academy of Natural Science collection at Drexel University. Considering that Jefferson is sometimes called "the founder of North American paleontology,” it would appear he got his revenge against Buffon after all.

A Pair of Dutch World War II Shipwrecks Have Disappeared Off the Coast of Malaysia

jfybel/iStock via Getty Images
jfybel/iStock via Getty Images

For nearly 80 years, two Dutch submarines have been occupying the ocean floor off the coast of Malaysia, with the remains of their crews still inside. They were among dozens of shipwrecks in the same area, all of them casualties of underwater World War II battles. Now, the ships— known as HNLMS O 16 and HNLMS K VII—are gone.

There’s nothing paranormal at work, though. Instead, the ships have vanished as a result of greed. Scavengers in the area have made a profitable pursuit of placing explosives within the wrecks, blowing them into manageable pieces and taking off with the scrap metal using a crane. Copper and bronze materials can also be resold. It’s estimated that about 40 ships in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have been demolished as a result of such efforts in recent years.

Because the ships are typically considered unmarked graves, the thieves may be committing the crime of desecrating corpses. After several British ships were found ransacked, the UK’s Ministry of Defense urged Indonesia to increase their efforts to protect the ships. The United States has dispatched representatives in Indonesia to guard ships they believe have been targeted by the scavengers.

Marine archaeologists have expressed some puzzlement at the phenomenon, as the scrap can often take weeks to retrieve, is frequently corroded, and would seemingly be cost-prohibitive to steal considering the labor involved. It’s possible that the ships may be targeted for having low-background metals, which are free from radiation because they pre-date atomic bomb testing and can be used in delicate scientific instruments like Geiger counters. In China, scrap metal could bring in about $1.3 million per ship. 

[h/t Live Science]

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