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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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A.G., Wikimedia Commons // GFDL
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Follow a Kayaker Through an Abandoned Shipwreck
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MV E Evangelia
A.G., Wikimedia Commons // GFDL

You don’t need expensive diving equipment and a scuba license to explore an abandoned shipwreck. As one adventurer shows, all you need is a kayak and a strong sense of curiosity.

According to Sploid, this video was filmed inside the rusted-out MV E Evangelia shipwreck in the Black Sea off the coast of Romania. The cargo ship sailed the seas from the time it was built in 1942 until it ran aground in 1968. Unlike most wrecks, the abandoned vessel remains fully visible above the shallow waters of its final resting place.

You can follow the amateur explorer through the boat’s interior in the video below. But if you ever come across a similar crumbling shipwreck in your travels, we don’t recommend venturing inside it on a whim.

[h/t Sploid]

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T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Make Rare, Gruesome Find in Portugal
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Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the small city of Estremoz, near Portugal’s border with Spain, archaeologists recently excavated three graves located at the edge of a medieval cemetery. They were intrigued by the graves' isolated location and odd burial style. Within, they found something shocking: All three people had amputated hands and feet.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Estremoz was an important village located between the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile. In the mid-13th century, Christians colonized the area, driving out the Moors. The famous castle of Estremoz, parts of which still stand, was built to house the royal court. The nearby cemetery of Rossio Marquês de Pombal dates to this period. It's on the edge of this cemetery that the archaeologists found the burials.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, researchers from the Universities of Évora and Coimbra describe the young to middle-aged men found in the graves with cut marks to their forearms and ankles. The cuts are clean through the bones but not quite at right angles, and appear to have happened just before or just after death. Even more interesting, the bones from the severed hands and feet were also found in the graves—but not in the right places.

Field drawing of the skeletons. The arrow points to one of the men's right hand lying below his left elbow.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the case of a late-teenage male, both of his feet and his left hand were buried under his left hip, while his right hand was under his left elbow.

In another grave, they found evidence that one amputation took more than one try to complete. The man's right leg had a second set of cuts, likely inflicted after a failed first attempt to cut off his foot. The researchers think that a sharp implement such as a machete, sword, cleaver, hatchet, or axe was used to deliver the blows swiftly and with high force.

The archaeologists believe the cuts were made while the men were still alive—or very near death—and almost certainly restrained. Lead author Teresa Fernandes tells Mental Floss that “due to the absence of any artifact, we cannot state for sure that the feet were bound; yet considering the historical evidence, prisoners were normally bound with the legs straight while hung."

Why had the men been treated like this?

Generally, amputations occur throughout history as the result of a medical therapy, accident, ritual, intentional violence, or punishment. While there is evidence from the same cemetery for foot disease, these particular men had no other indications of problems with their bodies, meaning medical treatment can be ruled out. So too can ritualistic post-mortem amputation, since there are no historical or archaeological accounts of amputation of hands and feet after death. And their injuries were clearly not the result of an accident.

The researchers think these amputations were a punishment.

Historical records of amputations related to criminal cases are relatively rare. But medieval kings in the Iberian peninsula had the discretion to mete out capital punishment—including hanging, drowning, and even boiling someone alive—as they saw fit. They could also use mutilation as punishment. The researchers found one mention specifically of the amputation of both hands and feet of traitors during a civil war in 14th-century Portugal.

“These skeletons may represent the testimony of vigorous application of justice as an act of royal sovereignty in a peripheral but militarily strategic region,” Fernandes' team writes.

Other researchers agree with this interpretation. Piers Mitchell, a palaeopathologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Mental Floss that because "the amputations are all at similar locations, and are symmetrically placed on the limbs, deliberate amputation as a punishment seems the most plausible interpretation."

Lost to the ages, however, is what these men may have done to merit this extreme punishment. Execution "could be enforced in the event of treason, theft, making false currency, or myriad sexual crimes," Fernandes says. “But the form of execution isn’t stipulated by law."

Archaeological evidence of judicial amputation is extremely rare, according to Jo Buckberry, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bradford who has done similar studies on ancient British skeletons. "The evidence of cut marks and the inclusion of severed hands and feet make this Portuguese case especially compelling,” she tells Mental Floss. Mitchell explains that often, "the extremities are absent in the graves of those who underwent amputation," which makes it noteworthy that these graves contained the spare body parts.

The fact that amputees were all young men also intrigues scholars. "This pattern has been seen in execution cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon England,” Buckberry says, “leaving us wondering if young men are more likely to commit crimes, or to be caught doing them, or if punishments are especially harsh for this demographic group."

These three unfortunate men may never tell us exactly what they did or who they are. But their bones show the most severe case of amputation as judicial punishment to date, revealing just one of the extreme penalties for committing a crime in medieval Portugal.

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