Surveying among the stars: Account of an emerging technology, under review

BOOK REVIEW by Victoria Ann Toribio Tirado

Image of Sarah Parcak's book - Archaeology From Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.
ARCHAEOLOGY FROM SPACE: HOW THE FUTURE SHAPES OUR PAST, by Sarah Parcak, 2019, Henry Holt and Co., New York, NY, 283 pages, $14.99 (Hardcover), $14.99 (Kindle).

The topic of satellite/space archaeology is – reportedly – a revolutionary, emerging technology and field of study in Contemporary Archaeology. It is of seemingly great relevance today for its potential and recorded uses in the study of earth’s landscape. It is said to have major implications on the study of those that have, are, and will reside upon it.

Sketch of the Landsat 1 satellite – the first ever Earth-observing satellite meant to monitor our planet’s landmasses. (1972)


According to the author,

“Perhaps it is a start to understanding what makes us human: our ability to ask how, where, when, why, and who, and creating the tools we need to bring the answers to life, on Earth, looking down from outer space.”

(Sarah Parcak 2019:9)

Evaluating this book with a critical lens resting upon the author’s accounts of personal experiences, the field’s methods and the proposed discoveries, Tirado guides the reader through a review of the book’s structural elements: author credibility, literary methods, perspectives and supporting evidence presented, and book organization and elements. This lens takes the form of crosscheck analysis.


Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist by specialty, and professor of archaeology by occupation, works within the realms of what the public may render as being reminiscent of science fiction or spy novel-plots. She is known as a trailblazer in her field and has greatly contributed to the course of its impact thus far. Her reality is comparative to that of Gandalf (see also Gandalf the Gray) in search of answers in the archives of Minas Tirith – intensive and extensive. “Between cutting-edge satellite data and classic fieldwork” she works on her “minimalist lab” (her heavy-duty, “ancient” laptop) to examine findings taken by satellite imagery and other remote sensing tools. Via sometimes satellite and hyper-spectral camera data, she looks for subtle differentiation in landscape, that is – “topography, geology and plant life.” Her work has virtually transported her from her “lab” in Birmingham, Alabama to places such as: Egypt, Romania, Kenya and Newfoundland to name only several. Upon these landscapes, she renders city grids, incredible maps that are astoundingly revealing. Perhaps her most famous uncovering was the city grid of the City of Tanis (see: “Lost City” of Tanis). Uncovering sites other professional excavators have missed, she has shaken the dust, now being called upon to begin and embark upon projects  where she is satellite-mapping entire countries (e.g., a crowd-sourcing project known as GlobalXplorer, Peru). In academia, she has published numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers and has been featured in a number of documentaries and talks across renowned networks such as BBC, PBS and She is also a TED Senior Fellow, National Geographic Explorer (2012-present) and founder of the Laboratory of Global Observation at the University of Alabama: Birmingham.

Parcak, Sarah H. . Archaeology from Space (p. 88, 89, 97). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition

Another book she has published includes Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology (2009).


Using a Descriptive literary method/style, she brings forth scenes and events that which appeal to our imaginations. She recalls immersive anecdotes of her experiences, such as flying over Egypt the first time, the sometimes groan-provoking experience of computer program crashes whilst conducting remote sensing work; the rush of making new archaeological finds through satellite imaging and remote sensing technologies. In these stories, she relates to the reader (Senatori 2017) and engages the readers’ senses as well as emotions. She situates the field within its past, across the globe, and in its interdisciplinary span of persons and procedures.


From Chapter 1 to the concluding paragraph of Chapter 12, the author’s pursuit/thesis stands as a success with no small amount of awe and excitement from one of its readers (me). Through a first-person perspective, she touches upon different sides of the “Space Archaeology” debate, addressing it with experiences, procedural breakdowns, an interspersing of visual aids, and no shortage of historical and contemporary references – from Howard Carter (discoverer of King Tut’s Tomb) to Doug Bolender (archaeologist in search of Viking settlements in the landscapes of Iceland). Also notable is that supporting evidence used has been used to explain even her mistakes in discernment. One such case was of Papa Stour where upon analyzing dashed lines on a spectral image, that there was probably nothing more than a modern pipeline. But what came to be was an elite’s Viking structure! This book brings attention the great possibility in further research with potentially increased efficiency and even accuracy (Parcak 2019: 6), presented through cases where technologies of this young field were employed (e.g., Infrared and Color Technology — CORONA Data sets (35-36); NASA — TIROS satellites (36); multispectral scanners — ERTS-1/Landsat-1(37), WorldView-2(92-94), Landsat 7 (236), Quickbird (273)).

SPANNING OUT: Looking at the “Back Matter”

Acknowledgments: Parcak thanks every person, agency and organization that which worked with her and/or contributed to her work. Some of the agencies and she references includes Abrams Artists Agency, Holt, the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt, the Tuesday Agency, DigitalGlobe, and funding Agencies. For organizations, she address GlobalXplorer, National Geographic, Young Global Leaders, Ministry of Culture, and Sustainable Preservation Initiative. As for people – editors, families, coworkers, her chairmen, her TED Fellow family and team, friends and supporters at home and abroad as well (from Birmingham to India, Peru, United Kingdom, Canada and Newfoundland).
Parcak also includes an area for Photos, a thorough Index, an About the Author section, a Newsletter Sign-Up page and a Copyright notice.
Beyond this, looking at her Notes, there is nothing short of 28 pages of references (hyperlinks also available if you access the Kindle version).


Looking critically at her work from a literary standpoint, her descriptive style and narrative cadence made it easy for a range of readers to access and relate to her work. I did not happen to come across any grammatical errors and would say the editors did a grand job with making sure they didn’t go to print (if any were made in the first place). The organization was also very helpful and reasonably executed – as archaeologists indeed aim to embody in their work.
Bringing this altogether, with its storytelling cadence and fortification of numerous references, this book packs quite the awesome punch. Her presentation of findings and supporting evidence, covering personal and verifiable experiences of challenge and practical problem solving, rounds out to a very cool read – a tour de force and showcase that there is so much to see, to learn and understand on the horizon – that which could perhaps begin with looking down from outer space. In a perhaps poignant way, in her book she speaks of a takeaway after attending the first international conference on satellite archaeology in Beijing, China:

My extraordinary colleagues at the conference had opened my eyes to a broader archaeological world – one of collaboration, encouragement, and cheering on, and they showed me that there’s a big planet to map and plenty of discoveries to go around.

Sarah Parcak, 2019: 41

For more of Sarah Parcak’s work:
GlobalXplorer | Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology (2009)
PBS NOVA Special: Vikings Unearthed
BBC Documentary: Rome’s Lost Empire
TED 2012, 2016, 2017


BIOS N.d. “Howard Carter.” History website. Accessed [June 11, 2020].

Cherrington, Emil and et al.
Use of public Earth observation data for tracking progress in sustainable management of coastal forest ecosystems in Belize, Central America. Remote Sensing of Environment Elsevier 245(111798)

Crawford, Barbara and Ballin-Smith, Beverley
1978 A Progress Report of the First Season’s Excavation at “Da Biggins,” Papa Stour, Shetland Edinburgh, Scottish Society for Northern Studies. Google Book.

Declassified Data – Declassified Satellite Imagery – 1 1960-1972. EROS Archive. USGS, United States. Web Page.

DiBiase, David
2009 11. Multispectral Imaging from Space. Courseware Module,

Fitoka, Eleni and et al.
2020 Water-related ecosystems mapping and assessment based on remote sensing techniques and geospatial analysis: The SWOS national service case of the Greek Ramsar sites and their catchments. Remote Sensing of Environment. Elsevier 245(111795)

Handwerk, Brian
 2009-2015 “Lost City” of Tanis. National Geographic. Web Article.

Estrin, James
2011 The Classified Photos, The Art of Surveillance. New York Times. Web Article.

Masek, Jeffrey and Taylor, Michael.
N.d. Landsat 1, Landsat Science. NASA. Web Page.

Lem, Pola
2017 Peering through the Sands of Time: Searching for the Origins of Space Archaeology. NASA: Earth Observatory.

Parcak, Sarah
2019 Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past. New York. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.

Senatori, Bella
2017 The Importance of Anecdotes in Writing. Oregon, The Franklin Post. Web Article.

Tucker, Abigail
2016 Space Archaeologist Sarah Parcak Uses Satellites to Uncover Ancient Egyptian Ruins. Smithsonian Magazine. Web Page.

Weisberger, Mindy
2019 Code-Name ‘Corona’ : Earliest Spy-Satellite Images Reveal Secrets of Ancient Middle East. LiveScience. Web page.

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