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History from the Air: Space Archaeology

"Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past," By Sarah Parcak. Normally, I would have cropped this picture so the book would have taken up most of the frame. Because I'm talking about space in this post, I wanted to give the impression of looking down on the book from on high. Mary Warner, 2019.
“Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past,” By Sarah Parcak. Normally, I would have cropped this picture so the book would have taken up most of the frame. Because I’m talking about space in this post, I wanted to give the impression of looking down on the book from on high. Mary Warner, 2019.

In the September edition of 3 O’Clock Punch!, my email newsletter**, I shared an article on Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist. Gorman discusses the importance of preserving the stuff we put up in space, the satellites, Moon Landing articles, spacecraft, and etc.

After sharing that article, I ran across a book at my local library called, “Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past,” by Sarah Parcak. I thought it was going to be about the same sort of archaeology Gorman practices, but not so fast. It’s actually a look at how imagery from above can assist archaeologists in finding sites on Earth.

Using aerial photos and satellite imagery, much of them produced by the U.S. government, and comparing these images to each other over time, along with comparing them to what is known about past structures from archaeological digs, Parcak and other space archaeologists can uncover sites that would take extraordinary amounts of time, effort, and money to uncover through standard archaeological methods.

Even though it saves loads of effort, it’s not instantaneous, requiring the patience to sift through and compare images. The time of day or season in which an image is taken can affect what is revealed within that image, as can geologic features and plants. The way plants grow over archaeological sites provides clues to the fact that a site lies beneath the foliage, which I find utterly fascinating. You’ve got to know how to interpret what you are seeing in the imagery, but you also have to have extensive knowledge of ground-level archaeology in order to know what you are looking for. Parcak does a bunch of research on specific sites before attempting space archaeology on them. She specializes in Egyptian archaeology, but has been asked to work on areas outside her field, like finding Viking sites, so this research is critical to success.

As I make my way through the book, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve used aerial imagery in studying local history. Nothing so spacey as satellite imagery, but aerial photography. This was immensely important in uncovering a major geologic feature, a ravine, that ran through Little Falls, MN, but that has been filled in over the years. This ravine was an outlet of Fletcher Creek, which is about 6 miles north of town, not close enough to make the connection today.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has aerial photos online, called Landview, that allowed me to see very clearly how the water flowed from this creek toward Little Falls when it overflowed the banks.

Getting even closer to earth, but viewing history from the air, photos taken from the tower of the Morrison County Courthouse allowed me to see parts of the ravine when it was still in existence in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

People have been fascinated with getting a distant perspective on land prior to tall buildings and airplanes and satellites. Climbing trees and scaling bluffs, cliffs, and mountains to get a better view have been in our repertoire for a long, long time, I dare say back to our primate ancestors. As our technology gets more developed, it provides us with even more perspective. With space archaeologists, as Parcak’s subtitle indicates, these futuristic technologies are helping us uncover and shape our history.

The clock tower of the Morrison County Courthouse in Little Falls, MN, was a popular place to take “aerial” photos of the city because of its high vantage point. Mary Warner, 2019.

 

**Sign up for 3 O’Clock Punch! via the bar at the top of my blog, the form at the bottom of my blog, or by using the Subscribe button at the top of the September edition. I send it out only once a month, on the last Friday of the month at 3 o’clock p.m. Central Standard Time. Through 3 O’Clock Punch!, I share 3 stories, including 1 or 2 of my blog posts from the past month, along with history-related items I find interesting. It’s a good way to remember The Pragmatic Historian exists without having to keep up with my social media feeds or checking the blog constantly.

 

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