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Spy Satellites Watch Ancient Ruins

Posted on: April 27, 2011

Indiana Jones seems a bit more like James Bond in archaeology these days, with the intrepid explorers of the ancient world growing ever more fond of high-tech tools.

Everything from laser mapping to radioactive dating has been added to the spadework that once defined archaeology. One that might make the most difference?

Spy satellites.

“The ability to survey substantial amounts of remote structures from space is immensely appealing,” said Stony Brook University archaeologist Elizabeth Stone, at the recent Society for American Archaeology meeting in Sacramento. “Entire, unsuspected building sites can suddenly be seen,” Stone said, displaying new views of Iraq’s 3000 B.C. city of Kish, (” the first city founded after the Flood,” basically the earlier Sumerian version of Noah’s flood in cuneiform records) at the meeting.

But that’s not all satellites can do for archaeology, and really, for everyone interested in the past. In March, the Global Heritage Fund launched its ” Global Heritage Network,” in cooperation with Google Earth and private imaging satellite firm DigitalGlobe, an ” early warning and threat detection system” for archaeological sites. In essence, antiquity now has its own spy agency, created to allow armchair archaeologists (as well as real ones), to watch for looting, disasters and other calamities at some of the most endangered sites of human history.

“Some of these places are being treated like junk,” says Jeff Morgan, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund, the Palo Alto, Calif., nonprofit organization dedicated to preservation of World Heritage Sites. The sites include some 911 cultural locations, ranging from Pompeii to Angkor Wat, deemed especially significant by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “Our goal is to build a worldwide network,” Morgan says, of scholars, lawyers and people living near the sites to aid in their conservation.

As an added bonus, anyone online can explore the sites, seeing video, maps and slideshows that put UNESCO’s records to shame.

DigitalGlobe has contributed overhead imagery of about 600 sites to kick-start the project. Each site (580 now are in the network) will get a regularly-updated assessment.

“Ideally, the most-endangered sites will get the most frequent updates,” Morgan says, sites such as Ur in modern-day Iraq, damaged by Saddam Hussein’s historically-inaccurate restoration efforts, and the 12th-Century temple complex of Banteay Chhmar in Cambodia, looted of statues for decades.

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