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Did You Know: Archaeology from Space

Satellites can be used to study ancient civilizations.
Credits

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with the NASA Earth Observatory (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/).
 
Story adapted from Image of the Day post by Pola Lem: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/90847/secrets-beneath-the-sand

  • Photo of the Site of the Sumerian city of Ur, southern Iraq: Wikipedia
  • Visible light image of southwestern Oman, 1994: Thematic Mapper, Landsat 5
  • Radar image of southwestern Oman, 1994: Shuttle Imaging Radar-C, STS-59, Space Shuttle Endeavor
  • Written by Kathryn Porter
Transcript

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Text, Did You Know? Archaeology From Space
 
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Site of the Sumerian city of Ur, southern Iraq (Aziz 1005). Text, Satellites can be used to study ancient civilizations. Until recently, archaeologists searching for the remains of ancient civilizations relied on ground-based exploration.
 
They used clues from written records to speculate where ruins might be located. Finding the actual site often required difficult expeditions through deserts, rain forests, and other harsh environments.
 
This began to change in the late 20th century when researchers found a new set of tools: satellites. Satellite images can reveal features that are invisible or difficult to recognize from the ground. Visible light image of southwestern Oman, 1994. (Thematic Mapper, Landsat 5). A Rocky desert floor, Dunes, a Dry stream bed.
 
In this natural-color satellite image of the desert in southwestern Oman, ancient tracks appear as faint, light- colored lines.
 
A radar image provides even more information. Radar image of southwestern Oman, 1994 (Shuttle Imaging Radar-C, STS-59, Space Shuttle Endeavour). In this image from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the ancient tracks stand out vividly against the rocky desert floor. Unlike visible light, radar signals can penetrate several meters beneath the surface, revealing natural and human-made features buried under the sand. In the early 1980s, images like these helped archaeologists in their search for the lost city of Ubar.
 
With Shuttle Imaging Radar, archaeologists were able to survey huge swaths of the desert relatively quickly, and identify potential sites for excavation.