I recently watched a fascinating BBC television programme about archaeology from space. No, it didn’t show archaeologists in spacesuits whizzing round in orbit collecting up bits of junk that have fallen off rockets or been jettisoned by astronauts. It was about using space satellites to look for traces of the Roman Empire that can’t be seen from the earth below.
ROME’S LOST EMPIRE was presented by historian Dan Snow and based on the work of Dr. Sarah Parcak from the University of Alabama. She’s been analysing images and photographs sent back to earth from orbiting satellites, which can examine the surface of our planet in considerable detail. They can do this not just visually, but using infra-red wavelengths as well, which are invisible to human eyes but enormously useful sources of information. She produces maps that make clear differences in the surface that you can’t distinguish from down here.
Each feature of our planet – sand, rock, vegetation, buildings – has a different “signature” in the data from space, and not just when they’re on the surface. The images can show buried remains too, such as sites of forts or farms from Roman times, even when they are now hidden below ground level.
Dr. Parcak has worked for some years finding hitherto unknown ruins in Ancient Egypt. Dan Snow’s programme got her to focus on the Roman Empire. She analysed maps of various parts of the Empire looking for sites that might be interesting archaeologically, and with modern global positioning techniques she could pinpoint them to within a meter or two. Then she and Snow and other experts visited these interesting places, and discovered remains on the ground that corresponded with the images from space…the “lost” sites that had either not been known at all by today’s scholars, or had been known about in theory but never found before.
Snow and Parcak looked at Portus, the vast ancient port west of Rome where warships and trading vessels anchored. The coastline has receded over time, and much of Portus is built over now, but the space images found an important ship canal leading directly to Rome and bypassing the longer route via the Tiber. They also discovered the site of what was almost certainly the enormous Portus lighthouse, which in its day was on a par with the great Alexandrian Pharos, rated one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
After other successful finds in Romania and Jordan, they focused on north Africa, examining the 1500-mile long frontier line between the prosperous and fertile Roman settlements and the nomadic barbarians in the desert nearby. How did the Romans protect their farmlands? Guided by the space images, Parcak located sites of a string of forts, which had been suspected but never found till now. The programme included delighted comments from Professor David Mattingly, who has spent years looking for traces of them, but needed Parcak’s new technology to find their exact whereabouts.
I hope this programme will be repeated soon, and I’m also hoping that a book will follow, or at least articles telling us more. Meanwhile, take a look at Sarah Parcak’s website, http://www.sarahparcak.com/index2.php#/home/ which covers her satellite-based findings in Egypt. It makes fascinating reading.