Saturday, May 28, 2011

CSI Archaeology: New Satellite Tools Reveal Lost Cities and Pyramids

Very interesting - and great images too.  This technology gives new meaning to the saying "we've barely scratched the surface."  Indeed - we barely have!  What secrets will Egypt yet reveal?  What an exciting time for archaeology. 

Egyptian pyramids found by infrared satellite images
24 May 2011 Last updated at 19:32 ET
By Frances Cronin
BBC News

Seventeen lost pyramids are among the buildings identified in a new satellite survey of Egypt.

More than 1,000 tombs and 3,000 ancient settlements were also revealed by looking at infra-red images which show up underground buildings.

Initial excavations have already confirmed some of the findings, including two suspected pyramids.

The work has been pioneered at the University of Alabama at Birmingham by US Egyptologist Dr Sarah Parcak.

She says she was amazed at how much she and her team has found.

"We were very intensely doing this research for over a year. I could see the data as it was emerging, but for me the "Aha!" moment was when I could step back and look at everything that we'd found and I couldn't believe we could locate so many sites all over Egypt.

"To excavate a pyramid is the dream of every archaeologist," she said.

The team analysed images from satellites orbiting 700km above the earth, equipped with cameras so powerful they can pin-point objects less than 1m in diameter on the earth's surface.

Infra-red imaging was used to highlight different materials under the surface.

Test excavations

Ancient Egyptians built their houses and structures out of mud brick, which is much denser than the soil that surrounds it, so the shapes of houses, temples and tombs can be seen.

"It just shows us how easy it is to underestimate both the size and scale of past human settlements," says Dr Parcak.

And she believes there are more antiquities to be discovered:

"These are just the sites [close to] the surface. There are many thousands of additional sites that the Nile has covered over with silt. This is just the beginning of this kind of work."

BBC cameras followed Dr Parcak on her "nervous" journey when she travelled to Egypt to see if excavations could back up what her technology could see under the surface.

In the BBC documentary Egypt's Lost Cities, they visit an area of Saqqara (Sakkara) where the authorities were not initially interested in her findings.

But after being told by Dr Parcak that she had seen two potential pyramids, they made test excavations, and they now believe it is one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt.

Dr Sarah Parcak has already identified several sites using high resolution satellite imagery that she thinks are of huge significance. See here a streetmap of the ancient city of Tanis.
But Dr Parcak said the most exciting moment was visiting the excavations at Tanis.

"They'd excavated a 3,000-year-old house that the satellite imagery had shown and the outline of the structure matched the satellite imagery almost perfectly. That was real validation of the technology."

The Egyptian authorities plan to use the technology to help - among other things - protect the country's antiquities in the future.

During the recent revolution, looters accessed some well-known archaeological sites.

"We can tell from the imagery a tomb was looted from a particular period of time and we can alert Interpol to watch out for antiquities from that time that may be offered for sale."

She also hopes the new technology will help engage young people in science and will be a major help for archaeologists around the world.

"It allows us to be more focused and selective in the work we do. Faced with a massive site, you don't know where to start.

"It's an important tool to focus where we're excavating. It gives us a much bigger perspective on archaeological sites. We have to think bigger and that's what the satellites allow us to do."

"Indiana Jones is old school, we've moved on from Indy. Sorry, Harrison Ford."

Egypt's Lost Cities is on BBC One on Monday 30 May at 2030 BST. It will also be shown on the Discovery channel in the US.


John Webb said...

I saw this program on TV last night.

The narrator said that only about 1% of the antiquities in Egypt have so far been exacavated. By the end of the program, it was believable.

The program began with Hawass showing us round the interior of the great pyramid, the great gallery, and the interior roof chambers. Then a few clips inside the Egyptian Museum Cairo, mainly looking at pyramid capstones.

The first item investigated by Sarah Parcak was Tanis. We saw a detailed street plan from the satellite. On the ground, excavations had begun to uncover walls of buildings beneath the sand, in good condition.

Next into the desert. Satellite images had suggested locations of hut circles, made several thousand years before the pyramids. On the ground, Sarah Parcak found flint tools and fragments of ostrich shells used as vessels.

Breifly visited the Cave of the Swimmers and saw hand prints and cave art, from 6000 BC. Then touched on the difficult question of how these apparently primitive cave people decided to construct pyramids (climate change, they said).

Some aerial photography of the Valley of Kings. Then John Romer, who has made several TV programs about Egypt, took one of the presenters round the tomb of Tutankhamum. Romer said the probablity of the new technology locating a new Royal tomb is 'very high'.

Off to Abidos, tomb of Seti I, and the royal graveyard. Here was a site where SP thought there was a square-shaped depression, which she thought might be a collapsed tomb. Two long deep trenches were dug at right angles, but nothing was found there.

Off to look for 3 important sites:

1) The missing Temples of the Sun, from the Old Kingdom. Trip round a previously discovered Sun Temple, and cgi reconstruction. No excavation on the ground here at the moment.

2) The Labyrinth, near the tomb of Amenhotep(?) III, described by Heroditus as surpassing the pyramids. It's actually a large (undiscovered) city on the edge of a mortuary temple. More cgi reconstructions. No excavation on the ground here at the moment.

3) Harem Palace - a palace for the king's wives alongside the Nile, and town to support it. More cgi large-scale reconstructions.

The climax focused on the Nile delta, where the first capital of the Lower Kingdom is believed to have been, and since covered by mud, and is now farmland. This investigation relied on relief mapping rather than infra-red. They took out a few soil cores, only a few inches in diameter. They found carnelian, agate and amythyst, said to indicate high-status jewlery. That was 6 metres down, so roughly from 6000 years ago. This was the find the chuffed SP the most. More cgi reconstruction.

The final site was Saqqara. Here satellite images suggested a pyramid might be found. Excavation on the ground was beginning to uncover blocks, and also an unusual curving wall, and a possible tomb. Hawass was enthousing over these.

This is from a review in this morning's Independent:

"Fedoras off to BBC1 for not showing Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark on a Bank Holiday Monday but a 21st-century documentary version, more or less. Egypt's Lost Cities explained how satellite and infra-red technology have enabled an American Egyptologist named Sarah Parcak to see what lies beneath the desert sand, leading to one of the most exciting excavations of modern times.

This was truly mind-boggling stuff. The presenters were Dallas Campbell and Liz Bonnin, both of whom added the sex appeal that even archaeology this fascinating, so badly needs. Accompanying them almost every step of the way was Parcak, who saw her satellite-imaging technology yielding major results for the first time, and yet steadfastly refused to shed even a single tear of joy. If only there was an archaeology category, she'd be a cert for a Nobel Prize."

Jan said...

Thanks so much for posting your synopsis/summary! It is exciting to think that so MUCH of ancient Egypt remains to be discovered. As this technology becomes more regularly applied to assist countries in mapping their potential archaeological assets, it will be a golden age for archaeologists!

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