The Influence of Space Archaeology and Satellites on Our Understanding of the Past

There are currently more than 40,000 detected objects in space, and 5,000 of those objects are satellites. Archaeologists rely on satellites, which help to communicate the positions of sites with historical or cultural relevance. This is especially clear in the case of Sarah Parcak, space archeologist and Egyptologist, who defines space archaeology as using “any form of air or space-based data” to look for ancient features or sites (Marchant 2019). 

Through the use of satellite imagery, Parcak and her team have discovered “more than 3,000 ancient settlements, more than a dozen pyramids and over a thousand lost tombs” in Egypt (Tucker 2016). One of these discoveries was the ancient city of Tanis, the former capital of Egypt. After centuries, Tanis was eventually lost under a large build up of silt and mostly forgotten. This did not stop Parcak from trying to find it, however. Because the city is still mostly buried under the desert (Figure 1), it would take hundreds of years to excavate the site using conventional practices. Instead, Parcak combined two satellite images to unveil (Figure 2) the “layout of the largest, most continuously occupied capital city in ancient Egypt” with visible suburbs, streets, and houses (Marchant 2019). 

Figure 1: Tanis, Egypt from ground level. Photograph by Sarah Parcak.

Figure 2: Satellite image of the archaeological site in Tanis, Egypt. Photograph by DigitalGlobe/Maxar via Getty Images.

Space archaeology and satellite imagery have not only helped uncover different ancient cities like Tanis, they have helped deepen our understanding of things that have already been revealed and studied in the archaeological record. Archaeologists, for example, have argued whether ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom ended largely for social, political, and economic reasons or because of a severe drought. Parcak used satellite images of ground survey work and the Nile Delta to show a decrease in the number of the Old Kingdom’s settlements from that time period to the following one. Smaller settlements were more abandoned than larger settlements, which were generally maintained. Parcak concluded that the images provided more evidence of there having been a “a serious drought that lasted for a lengthy period of time and played a more major role in the decline than previously assumed” (Corbyn 2019). Therefore, satellites also help to advance existing perceptions of archaeological findings. 

According to Parcak, space archaeology allows people to see “a world without borders, full of possibility, past, present and future” (Marchant 2019). It allows people to analyze and understand features that relate to the history of humanity that are not visible from the ground. With satellite imagery, archaeologists are able to uncover truths about the past that have never been considered or fully understood, shining a light on the ever changing nature of history and our understanding of it. 


Further Reading: 


Corbyn, Zoe. July 27, 2019. “Sarah Parcak: ‘Imagine being able to zoom in from space to see a pottery shard!’” The Guardian.

Marchant, Jo. June 26, 2019. “Adventures of a space archaeologist.” Nature.

Tucker, Abigail. December 2016. “Space Archaeologist Sarah Parcak Uses Satellites to Uncover Ancient Egyptian Ruins.” Smithsonian Magazine. 

The Influence of Gender Roles on Archaeology

Bioarchaeology is defined as the analysis of past human remains to understand their larger culture (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 249). These remains provide direct evidence about past peoples’ lives and can be used by archeologists to present new perspectives on cultural patterns and processes. For example, the archaeologists in 2014 who discovered the remains of a 35-40 year old man and 25-30 year old woman at La Almoloya (Figure 2), an archaeological site in Spain and a major settlement of the El Argar, were able to determine that women may have held greater power in early Bronze Age Europe than what was previously understood, challenging the notion that state power tends to nearly always be a result of patriarchal societies (Pinkowski 2021). 

Figure 1: The silver diadem found on the woman’s skull. Photograph by Mediterranean Social Archaeological Research Group, Autonomous University of Barcelona.

The woman at La Almoloya was buried with many valuables including bracelets, rings, a necklace, earlobe pugs, and a silver diadem (Figure 1) that still sat on her skull upon excavation, an artifact thought to be a symbol of power. She was ultimately dubbed the “Princess of La Almoloya.” The man, however, was not buried with anything that would have been considered precious. Instead, he was thought by archaeologists to be some sort of soldier. His bone wear suggested a lot of time spent on horseback, and his skull indicated “deep scars from a severe facial injury, possibly an old wound sustained in combat” (Metcalfe 2021).  Radiocarbon dating suggested that the two were buried around mid-17th century BCE, which was the height of El Argar’s development (Davis-Marks 2021). 

One puzzling discovery made by researchers through the analysis of Mitochondrial DNA was the lack of relationship between the adult women buried at La Almoloya. Of all 30 female genomes sequenced, not one was related to another. While some of these women did have children, they were otherwise unattached. One proposed explanation by Dr. Rihuete-Herrada, a co-author of the genetic study, was that women from different settlements “sent their daughters as an alliance with other groups that are run equally along female lines” (Pinkowski 2021). 

Figure 2: La Almoloya from a distance. Photograph by Mediterranean Social Archaeological Research Group, Autonomous University of Barcelona.

The theory that the community was ruled by the “Princess” is supported by previous archaeological findings, such as those gathered by archaeologist and historian Marina Lozano. Lozano conducted a study in 2020 that found many Argaric women were included in the production of wool textiles and linen and metallurgy, all significant economic contributions (Pinkowski 2021).

Through the use of bioarchaeology, archaeologists were able to uncover a truth about the past that had never been considered, shining a light on the ever changing nature of history and our understanding of it. The “Princess of La Almoloya” burial also demonstrates how when examining history, presumptions based on sex and gender roles cannot be made. If they are, true understanding of the past may never be achieved. 


Further reading: 


Davis-Marks, Isis. March 12, 2021. “Silver Diadem Found in Spain May Point to Bronze Age Woman’s Political Power.” Smithsonian Magazine.

Metcalfe, Tom. March 10, 2021. “Ancient woman may have been powerful European leader, 4,000 year old evidence suggests.” National Geographic,  

Pinkowski, Jennifer. November 17, 2021. “You Should See Her in a Crown. Now You Can See Her Face.” New York Times,

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson. 230-250.