Can you dig it? Space archeology, virtual reality and GIS

April 28, 2016  - By 1 Comments

By Troy Lambert, contributing author

In Northern Idaho, not only is the Silver Valley near Kellogg one of the richest silver mining areas ever, but it is also the focus of an extensive EPA Superfund cleanup. There are more than 600 mine and prospecting sites in Shoshone County alone. So how do we sort through them and figure out where buildings were, and what sites were actually developed?

Photo Credit: United States Forest Service, 1968

Photo Credit: United States Forest Service, 1968

Using aerial photography and GIS technology, historians, archaeologists and environmental scientists are able to look into the past and determine what actually occurred at individual sites. The United States Forest Service (USFS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) took aerial photographs of the entire area in 1937, 1948, 1965 and 1974. Other years, they partially photographed the area. Since then, aerial flyovers have been replaced by satellite imagery. All of this data tells environmental scientists where to look for waste materials.

It also tells archeologists where to look for old structures and other manmade features. Because before a mine site can be cleaned up, it’s history must be documented. Between historic imagery and modern satellite coverage, this task is made simpler.

Archaeologists all over the world are applying these same techniques, so it comes as no surprise that the 2016 TED Prize, awarded annually, went to space archaeologist Dr. Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, whose wish is to: “…discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites across the globe. By creating a 21st-century army of global explorers, we’ll find and protect the world’s hidden heritage, which contains humankind’s collective resilience and creativity,” she told the Alabama News Center.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Parcak first earned international attention by satellite mapping Egypt using infrared imagery, discovering “17 potential unknown pyramids, 1,000 tombs and 3,100 settlements.” At the heart of her program is an online, citizen scientist, interactive platform that will allow anyone to discover ancient sites from space. The same information and imagery gathered over time will allow her and her teams to monitor looting.

The program works simply: Once users take a quick tutorial, they are “dealt” a series of images from a deck with a general location like Northern Italy. The images are of a 50-meter-square area, and have already been processed to simplify the explorer’s search. The exact GPS location is encrypted similar to the way patient data privacy is preserved in Electronic Medical Records (EMR) to protect the exact location from potential looters and unethical archeological expeditions.

All potential discoveries, once vetted, will be passed along to authorities along with the GIS data, so they can then excavate or protect the sites. This enables archaeologists not only to detect sites, but to find and stop looters in a matter of days or weeks rather than months or years.

GIS can play a huge role in these and other archeological projects, and with the integration of virtual reality, the possibilities are even more exciting.

Georeferencing Maps and Historical Photos

While this is not possible with all sites, historical photos of some areas give archaeologists clues of where to start looking for more recent structures and human activity. Georeferencing ancient maps and photos or drawings where possible show what features have changed, what has remained the same, and what impact modern human activity has had on the site.

Photo Credit: YouTube

Photo Credit: YouTube

“Rebuilding” Structures

Once foundations and other evidence of structures have been found, 3D modeling software such as Esri CityEngine can be used in conjunction with photos to virtually reconstruct buildings, terrain and other features. This gives archeologists and scholars insight to how each site might have been used, and what other evidence to look for.

Virtual Reality

As 360-degree cameras have become more affordable and portable (with the release of several new models like the Nikon KeyMission 360), filming sites once they have been visited in this comprehensive way will allow archaeologists who are unable to physically reach the location to “look” for evidence, and offer advice and insight to those on location.

Explorers in Parcak’s programs who make new discoveries will be able to accompany archaeologists via Periscope, Skype, Google Hangouts and social media, all of which are headed toward 3D video capability, allowing for more immersive and meaningful visits.

Infrared photos from space allow us to see things on the ground not previously visible. Three dimensional modeling allows us to visualize structures no longer there, and 360-degree video and virtual reality allow us to visit these places from far away.

The way we discover new things about our world and the way we explore them is changing, and much of that change is possible due to the blend of GIS and virtual reality.


Troy Lambert is a freelance writer, editor and thriller author living in Boise Idaho. He became interested in using GIS for unique applications while at a museum, and now looks for and writes about unique ways GIS is used and can be used to change our world.

Tracy Cozzens

About the Author:

Tracy Cozzens has served as managing editor of GPS World magazine since 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.

1 Comment on "Can you dig it? Space archeology, virtual reality and GIS"

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  1. ABDENOUR NAZEF says:

    This is fantastic !

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