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Beyond Stone & Bone

Google Earth and A New Generation of Archaeologists
by Heather Pringle
August 27, 2010

Today, Science magazine published my news article on how archaeologists are now using Google Earth to peer into clandestine worlds.  At Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Ph.D. student Adrian Myers employed Google Earth satellite images to map the secretive Camp Delta prison at Guantanamo Bay, where the United States government holds suspected terrorists.  Myers’ maps are now the only independent, public record of this clandestine prison, and they chart its explosive growth between 2003 and 2008–from simple plywood and chain-link fence structures to concrete super-maximum security facilities.  The latter structures look as if they were built for eternity–a reflection, perhaps, of how long the Bush administration intended to prosecute the War on Terror.

Myers, however,  is not alone in his clever use of Google Earth. Also at Stanford, archaeologist Daniel Contreras and colleague Neil Brodie have employed Google Earth imagery to quantify the vast extent of looting across all of Jordan. And in Australia,  La Trobe University archaeologist David Thomas and his colleagues pored over Google Earth images to survey Afghanistan’s Registan Desert –a no-go zone for archaeologists–for sites.

What I wasn’t able to mention in my article for Science, however, was a  fascinating conversation that I had with one of the world’s foremost experts on remote sensing and archaeology,  Sarah Parcak,  at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.  Parcak is now directing a major new project in Egypt,  surveying for previously unknown sites.  The work begins in her office with marathon sessions with Google Earth and other satellite imagery,  as she draws up a possible laundry list of sites. ” If you had told me when I was a kid that I would be able to zoom in from space to look for archaeological sites during my lunch hour,”  she laughed,  “I would have thought you were crazy.”

Out in the field, Parcak ground-truths the list of possible sites.  She walks farmers’ fields,  using real-time Google Earth on her iPhone to help locate the sites she pinpointed back in Birmingham.  “Google Earth’s an incredibly powerful tool,” she says.  “I think the sky is the limit in terms of its possibilities.”

Downloaded nearly 700 million times, Google Earth is one of the most popular pieces of computer software in the world. Curious kids love playing with it,  zeroing in on sites like the Great Pyramid of Giza or Stonehenge, and then zooming in for a closer look.  “And now they are coming to college and taking courses in remote sensing,” says Parcak. “And so many say they are taking them because of Google Earth.”

Essentially raised on Google Earth,  college students have little trouble learning to think in 3 D.   And this, Parcak predicts, will have a major effect on the way archaeology is carried out in years to come.  “To heck with thinking outside the box, ” she concludes.  “There will be no box for them.”

Photo of soldier at Guanatanamo Bay,  courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

7 comments for "Google Earth and A New Generation of Archaeologists"

  • Reply posted by links for 2010-09-02 | (September 2, 2010, 10:34 am):

    […] Archaeology Magazine Blog – Beyond Stone and Bone » Google Earth and A New Generation of Arch… Heather Pringle blogs about her (paywalled) Science Magazine article which looks at how Google Earth is changing the field of archaeology. […]


  • Reply posted by Christian Belena (February 24, 2011, 11:35 am):

    Although Google Earth is a great tool I don’t understand how it can be used for archaeological verification. I have found that the images of my own neighborhood have not been updated in what seems like a decade! There are vehicles and other objects on the map of my street that haven’t been there in reality for more than 5 years. So, who often are the world-wide images updated? Is Google only updating certain sites while ignoring others? There are also many areas – particularly those of national-security interests – that are always obscured. Additionally, how could it help archaeologists uncovers remains of sites if those sites are too far underground to be seen even as outlines?


  • Reply posted by balage (February 26, 2011, 12:08 pm):

    As an artist and illustrator of archaeological sites, I use Google Earth all the time to put the visual reconstruction of an ancient city in context. I start consulting excavation reports for the general layout and then for detailed architectural features (often only foundations remain) but it’s Google Earth that often enables me to gauge the actual landscape within which ancient urban areas existed when no other visual resource is available from the exact angle I need. I find artistic recreations of ancient locations misleading when there they are isolated from the environment – the artwork just bleeds out from the edge of the city. Google Earth helped me understand the “feel” of an ancient site by being able fly over the region and get intimate with the place.
    A recent example is my reconstruction of Ephesus, which is not on my website yet but I can send a medium res. copy for those interested.


  • Reply posted by Tombstone (April 17, 2011, 7:25 pm):


    I find this a very well researched post….Good blog and good reads!

    Thank you


  • Reply posted by Looting and Google Earth « Dug-up Commonplaces (June 26, 2011, 1:02 am):

    […] notice when it went up a few days ago, but Heather Pringle has a news story in Science (via) which includes a bit about using Google Earth to map looting activities in Jordan (the parts about […]


  • Reply posted by Baltimore SEO (December 26, 2011, 8:25 pm):

    It is amazing to see how the latest technology helps to learn more about our past


  • Reply posted by daniel molitor (August 16, 2012, 7:04 am):

    Google Earth is also an incredibly powerful tool for those of us non-archaeologists who nonetheless have an interest – sometimes professional – in archaeological sites that would otherwise be inaccessible.

    When writing my last two archaeological mystery novels, I relied on Google Earth many times to learn more about several sites I had never had the opportunity to visit myself. From obscure locations in the Eastern Desert of Egypt (the Wadi Mahariq to the east of Beni Hasan, if anyone cares) to the locations of entrances to Rome’s ancient Cloaca Maxima, Google Earth gave me the perspective I needed to ensure the authenticity of what I was writing. Such detail might not matter to many readers, but I like knowing its there nonetheless.


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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