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Archaeology from Space

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past

Sarah Parcak
Henry Holt
2019
288 pp.
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Ten years after the publication of her first scholarly tome dedicated to the relatively new field of “space archaeology” (1), Sarah Parcak leaves behind the matter-of-fact tone of textbooks to offer readers a more personal view on satellite remote sensing and how it has come to take its place in the archaeologist’s toolbelt. Her new book takes readers across the globe as she seeks to understand the distant past with the help of modern satellites. Her writing is full of evocative anecdotes and personal insights gleaned from years of experience in dusty trenches as well as behind the computer screen, poring over satellite images.

The book divides itself between the trenches and the sky because results obtained through satellite imagery must always be verified on the ground. She introduces readers to the field of aerial remote sensing through numerous case studies, turning complex research into something much more approachable. In one such case, Parcak takes readers to the Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey, in northern Iceland, where ground-based survey methods had yielded promising results, and the addition of satellite images has allowed researchers to identify new Viking walls strewn across the landscape.

Despite her faith in the promises of space archaeology, Parcak’s book is not exclusively about success stories. She very candidly includes the occasional failure, reminding us, and herself, that setbacks and disappointing results are part of scientific exploration. She recounts, for example, an exploration in eastern Canada, where she and her team had been prompted to look for elusive Viking settlements and other ancient native sites. Despite a promising start, excavations eventually revealed that the “structures” identified on satellite imagery were simply unusual geological features.

Parcak also addresses the challenges faced today by archaeology, including looting and antiquities trafficking, and makes a plea for improving diversity within the field, arguing that archaeology has much to gain from incorporating the interpretations and perspectives of people of different origins and backgrounds. True to this philosophy, she ends by introducing readers to GlobalXplorer, a crowdsourcing platform she developed to empower stakeholders around the world by giving them a chance to remotely participate in archaeology. Beyond its academic goals, the project seeks to raise awareness about the threats faced by cultural heritage sites worldwide, in the hope that concrete measures against looting and other destructive practices will gain widespread support.

Throughout the book, Parcak’s love for her work and the people she studies is evident, and her enthusiasm is contagious. From Vikings in Iceland and Canada to amphitheaters in Italy and back to her first love, pharaonic Egypt, she brings both the present and the past to life.

References

  1. S. Parcak, Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology (Routledge, 2009)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Department, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 1C1, Canada.