The increasing use of satellite imagery to analyze the surface of the Earth has opened the benefits of orbital imaging technology to fields of study that previously would not have been imagined. Formerly the purview of spy surveillance and meteorologists, satellite imaging is now helping archaeologists look for new places to explore in the landscape, searching for large-scale or subtle patterns that would otherwise have been invisible to a researcher on the ground.
Using a vantage point that was previously a privilege known only to the gods, space archaeologists studying Egypt have uncovered the sites of a large number of previously-undiscovered archaeological sites, including what may be 17 lost pyramids located near the city of Tanis. At least two of the structures are quite likely to be pyramids, while the remaining fifteen are good candidates for further investigation. However, Sarah Parcak, Egyptologist and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, cautions that "we’re not going to be able to say with a 100-percent certainty that they are pyramids until they’re excavated." The same survey has also uncovered candidate sites for what may be up to 3,000 lost settlements, and 1,000 tombs.
This same technology is, at the same time, uncovering the dark side of archaeology: the large-scale looting of Egypt’s ancient sites. Using satellite imagery, a team of researchers led by Parcak has analyzed 1,100 archaeological sites in the Nile River Valley and Delta between 2002 and 2013, and found that there had been a major increase in the number of unauthorized excavations there.
Signs of looting increased dramatically between 2009 and 2010, with 15,889 and 18,634 pits recorded for each respective year, as compared to only 3,247 pits recorded from 2008. During the Arab Spring, the numbers jumped once again, with 38,000 pits being recorded for each year from 2011 to 2013.
"What satellite imagery has done is show us the scale of the problem," explains David Gill, an archaeological heritage professor at the University Campus Suffolk in the UK. While not directly involved in the study, Gill has been tracking the sale of Egyptian antiquities at auction: the value of Egyptian artifacts sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 totaled about $3 million, but in 2009-2010 that number jumped to more than $13 million. This increase not only coincided with the timeframe of the increase in looting mapped by Parcak’s team, but the dollar figure also corresponded to the increase in the number of illegal excavations.
"My hunch is that what we need to do is more analysis of what’s coming onto the market," Gill adds, and says that auction houses need to perform more rigorous due diligence to authenticate archaeological items that come to auction, to ascertain the legitimacy of how they were obtained. Stricter rules at market may also help deter initial incidents of looting to begin with, since, as Gill puts it, "If you can’t sell it, it’s not worth looting."