Satellite Remote Sensing in the AJA

I have to admit to being equal parts geeked out and creeped out by recent advances in satellite (or, more broadly, aerial) remote sensing in archaeology. I am excited as anyone to read about the latest “lost city” to appear from the use of LiDAR in the jungle and recognize that ever increasingly resolutions of multi-spectral satellite images provides new ways for archaeologists to tease out subsurface features from subtle variations in vegetation, soil color, and even elevation. Moreover, as someone interested in regional-level intensive survey, I appreciate the potential of satellite images to help us understand large-scale phenomena in the landscape. We use satellite images to map our survey units and have even used some basic multispectral analysis to target potentially significant subsurface features in the Western Argolid. In this context, I was excited to see the recent article of J. Donati and A. Sarris in the American Journal of Archaeology 120.3 (2016):  “Evidence for Two Planned Greek Settlements in the Peloponnese from Satellite Remote Sensing.”

Donati and Sarris combined historical excavation data with satellite remote sensing to reveal the ancient city plans of Hellenistic towns of Mantinea and Elis in the Peloponnesus. The article is an impressive blend of traditional archaeological data from excavations and remote sensing, historical sources, and the technical analysis of satellite data. The analysis of satellite images through the use of various band combinations and enhancements to pull out subsurface features is a major point in the article.

When I had finished the article, I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy. Maybe I’ve seen too many haunting images of satellite and drone images from the Middle East (check out Bard’s Center for the Study of the Drone). Or maybe I have read too much on technological solutionism over the past couple years. I could even be that I just spend 7 weeks hiking around the Greek countryside and felt put out that my physical labor could so easily be replaced by digital tools.

Whatever the reason, there was something disconcerting about the remote study of the landscape, and I was hoping that the article included some brief discussion of the ethical issues surrounding using satellite images in archaeology. This is not to suggest, even obliquely, that Donati’s and Sarris’s fine work had any ethical flaws, but the use of increasingly sophisticated remote sensing tools in archaeology is already having an impact on the discipline. For example, the use of drones and satellite images to monitor the looting and destruction of archaeological sites is almost common practice, and saturated with a kind of irony: the same technologies that have contributed to the political and social instability in the Middle East are being used to monitor the consequences of this instability.

AJA1203 02Donati pdf page 8 of 40

Of course Donati and Sarris weren’t using drones to monitor looting or to document the changing landscape of an off-limits prison camp. And I recognize that military technologies – ranging from the basic organization of excavation “campaigns” to the extensive use of GPS, satellite images, and drones – have shaped archaeology since its emergence as a modern discipline. At the same time, I do wonder about the de-spatialization of archaeological work. I won’t invoke my long-standing reflections on the significance of physically being in an archaeological environment. Any reader of this blog is probably familiar with my painfully romantic sensibilities.

Instead, I couldn’t help think that the use of remote sensing to take archaeological work from the field and to transport it to the lab, office or library seems to represent the obverse of the call by communities for the repatriation of archaeological objects. Our ability to analyze the material culture of a region and a community from miles in the sky or through millimeter accurate digital surrogates offers a potent challenge to those who see objects, sites, and heritage as profoundly local. Satellites, for example, defy the authority of local communities and national governments to grant access to sites in the same way as high resolution 3D scans challenge what it means to posses “the original artifact” in new ways. These perspectives should not necessarily lead us to rejecting the use of digital or remote sensing tool, but I’ll continue to feel a vague sense of discomfort when I encounter the use of new technologies without any reflection on its ethical impact. 

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