Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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Drought Reveals Ancient Sites in Scotland That Can Only Be Spotted From the Air
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iStock

Typically rainy Scotland is in the middle of an unusually dry summer—and local archaeologists are taking advantage of it. As the BBC reports, the drought has revealed ancient sites, including Roman camps and Iron Age graves, that have been hidden by farm soil for years.

Historic Environment Scotland has been conducting aerial surveys of the country's landscape since the 1930s, but it's in seasons like this, when the crops recede during dry weather, that the buried remains of ancient structures are easiest to spot. Conditions this summer have been the best since 1976 for documenting archaeological sites from the sky.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

The crescent-shaped crop mark in the photo above indicates a souterrain, or underground passageway, that was built in the Scottish Borders during the Iron Age. The surveyors also found remains of a Roman temporary camp, marked by straight lines in the landscape, built in modern-day Lyne—an area south of Edinburgh already known to have housed a complex of Roman camps and forts.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

In the image below you'll see four small ditches—three circles and one square—that were likely used as burial sites during the Iron Age. When crops are planted over an ancient ditch, they have more water and nutrients to feed on, which helps them grow taller and greener. Such crops are especially visible during a drought when the surrounding vegetation is sparse and brown.

Aerial view of field.
Historic Environment Scotland

Historic Environment Scotland has a team of aerial surveyors trained to spot the clues: To date, they've discovered more than 9000 archaeological sites from the air. HSE plans to continue scoping out new areas of interest as long as the dry spell lasts.

It's not just in Scotland that long-hidden settlements are coming to light: similar aerial surveys in Wales are finding them too.

[h/t BBC]

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An Ancient Sarcophagus Was Found in Egypt—And It's Never Been Opened
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iStock

In what could be the plot of the next summer blockbuster, a sealed sarcophagus has been found 16 feet underground in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Science Alert reports. It’s still unknown who or what might be lying inside the nondescript black granite casket, but what’s clear is that it hasn’t been opened since it was closed more than 2000 years ago.

Ayman Ashmawy, head of the government’s Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector, observed “a layer of mortar between the lid and the body of the sarcophagus,” indicating it hadn't been opened, according to a Ministry of Antiquities Facebook post. Considering that many ancient tombs in Egypt have been looted over the years, an untouched sarcophagus is quite a rare find.

The sarcophagus was discovered when a site in the Sidi Gaber district, dating back to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-30 BCE), was inspected before construction of a building began. The casket is 104.3 inches long and 65 inches wide, making it the largest of its kind ever discovered in Alexandria. In addition, an alabaster statue of a man’s head was found in the same tomb, and some have speculated that it might depict whoever is sealed inside the sarcophagus. Live Science suggested that archaeologists may opt to inspect its contents using X-rays or computed tomography scans to prevent damage to the artifact.

Although it remains a mystery for now, Twitter has a few theories about who might be lying inside:

[h/t Science Alert]

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