Armchair Archeology

Combining traditional archaeological methods with the power of technology

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Archaeologist discovers 2,000 sites from thousands of miles away

If Indiana Jones had had Google Earth at his disposal, he might have had an easier time of it. The tale of one Australian archaeologist demonstrates that modern-day heroes can notch up their discoveries even while they're comfortably thousands of miles away from the objects of their investigations.

Professor David Kennedy of the University of Western Australia was comfortably seated in his desk chair in Perth when he remotely identified 1,977 potential archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia. The academic had never visited the Middle Eastern country before, but high-resolution imagery in Google Earth enabled him to unearth his world-changing discoveries remotely.

By carefully scanning 1,240 square kilometers of the country, Dr. Kennedy and his colleague Dr. Michael Bishop revealed 1,082 pendant-shaped ancient tombs and hundreds of other sites that could be up to 9,000 years old. A paper on their findings was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science (2011), enabling other academics to build on this accomplishment. A second paper in the same journal maps out a potential program for future remotely sensed research (2011 online).

With Google Earth, Professor Kennedy discovered 1,977 structures built of basalt stone from the surrounding lava field in Jeddah, including various pendants, or circular mounds similar to collapsed tombs with processions of small stone piles branching out from them (A, B, C and D).

"It is readily apparent that the use of GE [Google Earth] for the prospection and identification of sites has great potential when dealing with a huge area that is otherwise largely inaccessible on the ground." – Professor David Kennedy, University of Western Australia

The findings are all the more significant because historically it has been very difficult to undertake archaeological ground surveys of the region, much less access aerial photographs. Although the country covers 2.15 million square kilometers (twice the size of the U.K., France, and Germany combined), Saudi Arabia has been one of the least explored countries archaeologically – until now.

Since 1997 Professor Kennedy and his colleague Dr. Robert Bewley have undertaken the only program of aerial reconnaissance in the Middle East researching archaeological sites across Jordan. In particular they have recorded thousands of ancient stone structures similar to those now revealed by Google Earth in Saudi Arabia. His research will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science (2011).

Professor Kennedy projects Google Earth imagery on the high-resolution tiled display in the iVec Supercomputing Lab at UWA.