Be a Space Archaeologist! Explore Sites with Online Platform

space archaeology
Satellite image shows a location in Peru. (Image credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe 2017)

If you find the artifact-hunting adventures of Indiana Jones thrilling but a little too gritty, a new online tool will allow you to remotely analyze images of ancient sites taken from space. You can discover their hidden secrets and even protect them from looting and damage.

Welcome to the 21st-century world of space archaeology, in which culturally important ruins can be spotted and decoded via high-resolution images captured by Earth-orbiting satellites. And a platform called GlobalXplorer puts this experience at any user's fingertips, inviting all who have internet connections to assist archaeologists in finding and protecting sites around the world, some of which are yet to be brought to light.

GlobalXplorer, which launched today (Jan. 30), is stocked with imagery representing 77,220 square miles (200,000 square kilometers) of sites located in Peru, creator and space archaeologist Sarah Parcak announced at a press briefing. By scanning "tiles" of the ground, users can identify and flag telltale signs of looting activity or unusual features that could represent an undiscovered structure. Archaeologists and government agencies can then use this data to preserve sites that are in peril and to launch new excavations in unexplored areas, Parcak told reporters. [Image Gallery: How Technology Reveals Hidden Art Treasures]

The goal was not only to engage people in analyzing archaeological sites, but also to keep these users coming back, Parcak said during a telephone news conference. To that end, the platform includes gaming elements, such as leveling up as users gain proficiency and unlocking "rewards" as experts collect and review users' data. Those rewards can include behind-the-scenes videos and other peeks into the archaeological process.

Even a GlobalXplorer user with no scientific training can quickly learn to identify shapes in a bird's-eye view of a landscape that send up red flags to archaeologists, Parcak said.

GlobalXplorer users review landscape "tile" images captured in Peru, searching for signs of looting, or features that indicate hidden ruins. (Image credit: Designed by Mondo Robot)

For example, so-called "looting holes" — pits dug at archaeological sites illegally to remove artifacts for private sale — have a distinct circular appearance, tending to be surrounded by "a shallow donut of earth," Parcak explained. "Where there is one, there are probably dozens to hundreds of them," she said. "Once you've seen what it looks like, it's very easy to recognize."

And variations in plant color, visible through different filters in satellite images, can hint at the health of the vegetation, suggesting if it might be concealing a hidden human-made structure, Parcak said.

Archaeology in general — and projects like GlobalXplorer in particular — can also provide users with some perspective on current global problems, by connecting people to the scope of human history, Parcak added. Ancient civilizations, like modern ones, experienced periods of intense crisis, followed by resilience and recovery. Knowing that cultures from the distant past faced and overcome serious trials can send a message of hope to those who are worried about the challenges faced today, she said.

"It's called 'a platform for humanity' because we're all human beings at the end of the day," Parcak said. "Understanding who we are and where we come from and knowing that we're all the same can connect us in a way that we need right now."

Original article on Live Science.

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Mindy Weisberger
Mindy Weisberger is a senior writer for Live Science covering general science topics, especially those relating to brains, bodies, and behaviors in humans and other animals — living and extinct. Mindy studied filmmaking at Columbia University; her videos about dinosaurs, biodiversity, human origins, evolution, and astrophysics appear in the American Museum of Natural History, on YouTube, and in museums and science centers worldwide. Follow Mindy on Twitter.