The Landsat Program and Archaeological Imaging

Satellites, from an archaeological perspective, can be viewed as much more than just a future (or present-day) artifact. With the launch of Landsat, NASA revolutionized imaging on earth, and has allowed for the discovery of new archaeological sites, allowing archaeologists to preserve more of the past. The idea of imaging earth from space came about after the launch of Surveyor 1 and the Lunar Orbital platforms. These satellites took extremely details pictures of the surface of the moon and other planets, but they were not made for looking at earth. (Aldenderfer, 2019). Soon after, imaging of earth from space became popular, starting with the United States Department of Defense, who kept most of the images classified. With the launch of the Landsat Program, advance images of earth are now in public domain, able to be used by Archaeologists eager to study the hidden sites of the earth. (Giardino, 2010)

Figure 1: Landsat satellite in orbit. Retrieved from

            In the 1980s, Archaeology saw an increased use of these satellites for learning about sites on earth. In 1984, Boston University sponsored a conference on satellite imaging and archaeology as a response to the growth in usage of these satellite images. (Sever and Wiseman, 1989). The conclusions of the conference were widely agreed upon, and stipulated that these images should be used in learning about the relationship between environment and society, ancient and present, and should be focused especially in places with endangered resources. (Giardino, 2010).

One example of the use of the Landsat program occurred in Guatemala, which aimed to understand the Ancient Maya relationship to the rainforests of Northern Guatemala. The satellite images revealed that swamps made up to 40% of the land space in the rainforest, and they changed with the seasons. It also revealed different vegetation, as well as other small changes that occurred that could elucidate the mystery of what wiped out the Maya. Through the satellites, not only is environmental information found, but archaeological sites can be discovered. Through this project, 70 new Archaeological sites were discovered. (Sever and Irwin, 2003)

.         Figure 2: Satelite image of Maya ruins. Retrieved from

           The rainforest is incredibly dense, an area that is hard to study without some form of aerial imaging, though the use of these satellites, so much more can be discovered. Satellite images reveal vegetational change, differing elevations on which sites are located, and the courses of water features. The use of satellites has made imaging much more cost-efficient and accessible. (Sever and Irwin, 2003)


Works Referenced

Sever, Thomas L., and Daniel E. Irwin. “LANDSCAPE ARCHAEOLOGY: Remote-Sensing Investigation of the Ancient Maya in the Peten Rainforest of Northern Guatemala.” Ancient Mesoamerica 14, no. 1 (2003): 113–22. doi:10.1017/S0956536103141041.

Wiseman, James R. “Archaeology Today: From the Classroom to the Field and Elsewhere.” American Journal of Archaeology 93, no. 3 (1989): 437–44.

Giardino, Marco J. “A History of NASA Remote Sensing Contributions to Archaeology.” Journal of Archaeological Science 38, no. 9 (September 2011): 2003–9.

Aldenderfer, Mark S. 2019. “What Did the Moon Landing Do for Archaeology?” Anthropology News 60 (5).


Further Reading:


The Dunbar Martyrs and the Ethics of Bioarcheology

In 2013, beneath the Durham Cathedral, a mass grave was found. Archaeologists watched carefully as construction on a café occurred beside the cathedral, ensuring the old church would remain unharmed. Instead, a more interesting archaeological event occurred. Under corner of the cathedral lay approximately 17 people of a mystery origin. (Durham University, 2018) Immediately, bioarcheologists collected and analyzed the remains. The goal of the bioarcheologists was to discover the context of death and burial. Due to location and the assumed time period, it was suspected that this grave was the result of the bubonic plague. This assumption had some merit, especially considering the pattern of the bones.

Figure 1: The placement of bodies in the grave. Retrieved from

The bodies appeared to be placed haphazardly, even thrown, into the grave. More analysis of the bones revealed linear scratches on the surface, consistent with the knowing of rodents. This evidence suggested an improper burial. (Gerrard, C. J. et al. (2018))

Further evidence revealed that all the remains were young men, most likely soldiers. Archaeologists at Durham University revealed that the remains were that of Scottish prisoners, known as the Durham Martyrs, of war, detained on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, an English soldier and statesman at the time of the English Civil Wars. It is estimated that 1,700 prisoners of war were buried in Durham, this find represents only a small portion of these casualties. (Mark Brown, 2015)

This discovery brought with it an abundance of ethical issues. The only bodies taken for examination were those disrupted by construction, but the excavation of the disrupted bodies caused questions of proper burial and repatriation. In 2015, the university of Durham announced they would be reburying the remains, but not in Scotland—the remains were to stay in Durham. This caused outrage, and campaigners rose up, urging the university to bury the bones in their native Scotland. Despite the controversy, the remains were buried in Durham. (Jody Harrison, 2016) Though the reburial provides an unethical example of reburial, and demonstrates the complications of ownership in archaeology, the archaeologists studying the Durham martyrs brought awareness to the English Civil War, and the plight of the soldiers. (Figure 2)

           Figure 2: The team of archaeologists at Durham University; Retrieved from

Following the reburial in 2018, the University of Durham published an online course detailing the lives and deaths of the soldiers, and the role of archaeology in bringing their stories back to life.



Anon. “An archaeological case study: The Scottish soldiers.” FutureLearn. Durham University.

Brown, M. 2015. September 2. “Skeletons found near Durham Cathedral were Oliver Cromwell’s prisoners.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, September 2.

Gerrard, C.M., R. Annis, A. Caffell, C.P. Graves, A. Millard, and J. Beaumont. 2018. Lost lives, new voices: Unlocking the stories of the Scottish soldiers at the Battle of Dunbar, 1650. Oxford, Englands: Oxbow Books.

Millard, A. 2022. April 25. “Durham University Scottish Soldiers Project.” Scottish Prisoners of War Society | Promoting knowledge of the Scottish prisoners from the Battles of Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651). Scottish Prisoners of War Society, April 25.

University, D. 2021. June 4. “A long way from home:” Scottish Soldiers – Durham University. June 4.

Further Reading