Archaeologists love Google Earth

Google Earth continues to play a big part in the future of archaeology. Archaeologists have used the program to cheaply scan the Amazon for ancient cities. More recently, a researcher in Australia used Google Earth to spot almost 2000 potential archaeological sites in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Cool stuff! And much less expensive than doing the same thing with lasers or buying satellite time.


  1. I’d wonder about accuracy. I remember some foofaraw when someone thought they saw underwater ruins via google earth, and it was explained as edging artifacts or the like, errors that occur when the images get stitched together. Surely that sort of visual error could cause a lot of false positives?

  2. I guess if Indiana Jones lived today, instead of facing the dangers of cannibalistic natives and boobytrapped temples he’d have to wrestle with carpal tunnel syndrome.

  3. Google Earth continues to play a part in archaeology. Not a “big” part by any stretch. It is useful to some degree, but there are pretty clear limits to its usefulness. And I’m saying that as someone who’s using it for precisely this purpose.

  4. I can see the positive in this, in that it makes the job of finding sites easier for archaeologists, but I can’t decide if that outweighs the negative: the loss of site security. Many sites are looted already, and a tool like this makes it easier for amateur archaeologists and other thieves to find them, too. I just hope the knowledge that true archaeologists gain makes it worth it.

    1. Many sites are looted already, and a tool like this makes it easier for amateur archaeologists and other thieves to find them, too. I just hope the knowledge that true archaeologists gain makes it worth it.

      Archeologists are just looters with sponsorship.

      Granted, that’s a lot better than looters who have to melt down irreplaceable artifacts to pay their bus fare, but let’s call a trowel a trowel, eh? I never yet talked to an archeologist who would not acknowledge this basic truth. They are professional looters, who have acquired the funding to loot sites with the least possible destruction and loss of information.

      The best thing that could happen to most sites is to be left strictly undisturbed – with the exception of non-invasive imaging technologies, which get better every year. You can always learn more from an undisturbed sites than from records and museums, because investigative techniques get better over time. This is a fundamental axiom of archeology, taught since at least the 1980s when I took classes.

    2. There’s actually been interesting work done with Google Earth to prevent looting. A recent article talked about using Google Earth to spot new holes created by looters, and subsequently being able to send extra protection to those sites. I believe said article was in the SAA Archaeological Record last year.

  5. I know of one person doing the same with NASA Worldwind.

    Site security might be lost, but many more sites will probably be found, and it will be harder to lose such sites, and as such the benefits seem to outweigh the disadvantages.

  6. I don’t think site security is too big a deal – so long as the archaeologists don’t broadcast the exact locations, potential tomb raiders are not going to find it easy to find the locations.

    Finding stuff like this in Google Earth is not just a matter of randomly browsing around and spotting something (though there is that too) – it involves intense analysis. A lot of time and a lot of work goes into finding stuff like this.

    And really it’s no different than in the past, except in the past you’d study aerial photography. Stereoscopic aerial photography was a huge deal up until very recently both in archaeology and geology.

    I’m trained as a geologist, and I’ve examined stereoscopic aerial photography to look for geologic features. It’s quite cool.

    Nowadays, every geologist uses Google Earth. It’s free, and provides access to imagery never before available at any cost. But, there is something major lost from the days of stereoscopic aerial photography. The 3D resolution of Google Earth is extremely poor compared to it. I did geology research extensively involving 3D landform data. I had the best available, but I would have killed for stereoscopic aerial photographs.

  7. As an archaeologist, I disagree completely with the assertion that archaeologists are looters with sponsorship. There are many essential differences between looting and excavation. I’ll try to be brief.

    Looters take only the shiny, pretty, complete and valuable objects, destroying their context, and therefore destroying anything we might learn about the people who made, or used them. Archaeologists dig carefully, recording every possible piece of information, so that as much as possible can be reconstructed and analyzed later. We collect samples of the soil, microscopic remains of plants, animal bones, broken bits of pottery, the remnants of tools and the waste products of their manufacture, just to list a few. While it’s true that our methods are constantly improving, and therefore it is might be considered prudent not to excavate anything until we have attained some future perfection, the constant threat of actual looters, development, erosion, etc., means that if we actually want to learn anything about past ways of life, technologies, economies, and cultures, we SHOULD excavate them, carefully and with the best methods and techniques available to us at the time.

    Usually we only excavate a portion – a sample, and leave the rest, with some hope that if it isn’t destroyed by looters, development or erosion, we might come back in twenty or fifty years and learn more, with better tools and techniques. Archaeology is unique in that the effect of observation is destruction (unless you use remote sensing techniques). We don’t have the most perfect analytical techniques to analyze glaciers either. We could wait 50 or a 100 years and see if we can improve them, but by then they might be gone. The same could be said for studying endangered species, or a star before it goes supernova. Should we not attempt to learn anything, simply because the techniques we have to study them are not perfect?

    Looting is destruction. Pure and simple. There is no upside to looting.

    But while archaeology is not perfect (and I’m not sure what field is), we are able to accumulate data, form hypotheses, and test those hypotheses through excavation. We have found out some pretty interesting things about the past. When possible, we use non-destructive methods, like satellite imagery from Google Earth. But Google Earth primarily allows us to form hypotheses, not to test them. Based on the identification of 2000 *potential* archaeological sites in Australia, that archaeologist, or someone else, will have to go out and “ground truth” those locations, to see if they’re really there. From there, he or she might select a site to study further, by excavation. A good choice would be to leave the best protected sites alone, and excavate one which is threatened by development, looting or erosion.

    Obviously, since I’m an archaeologist, this is something I care passionately about. I don’t know what it is that you do. But let me just say that looting makes me angry. On the other hand, doing research in archaeology, learning new things about past society, economy etc., through systematic excavation and analysis, that makes me happy. It is not perfect knowledge or absolute truth. It is science. As such, our methods, and our data, are constantly improving. This is the basis of all scientific epistemology. Would you argue that we stop doing any science until we can do it perfectly?

    1. As an archaeologist, I disagree completely with the assertion that archaeologists are looters with sponsorship. There are many essential differences between looting and excavation.

      Archeologists 100 years hence will decry your excavations as needlessly destructive and call you a looter. To say otherwise is to defy history and posit an end to scientific progress. Own it!

      Carter wasn’t a far cut above Belzoni or Elgin; archeologists in Egypt and Greece smashed down doors and walls routinely in the bad old days. Today he’s a looter, in his own day he was a brilliant and respected archeologist. That’s how it works; in American universities, at least, this is acknowledged, and archeologists do their very best to do the least damage possible, knowing full well that it won’t be perfect.

      The more sponsorship a looter/archeologist has, the less priceless evidence is destroyed, generally. This is a good thing.

  8. It’s also quite useful for geologists. I took an intro class in geology this year and my professor illustrated some of this examples with Google Earth. He sometimes goes on it for fun, he says it allows him to see tectonic movements in an exciting way you just don’t get with mapping.

  9. I still remember the thrill of discovery I had when, while checking out my local area in Google Earth, I saw a circular cropmark. A henge? There are no henges here! Squee!

    …turns out that the henge – Bow Henge – had been discovered by a cartographer in the 80s from aerial survey photos. There’s absolutely nothing visible above ground – yes, we visited – but I still plan to get some low-level high-res aerial shots of it from a kite, if the crop and weather is right.

    Tech is great! :)

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