Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Space Archaeologists

What does the past look like from 200 miles up? A new generation of archaeologists has found that the history of civilization may look far clearer from the top of the atmosphere than it does from the bottom of If it weren’t for the landmines, Lingapura would be a great place to dig. For part of the 10th century, this pocket of northwestern Cambodia was the capital of the famed Angkorian empire, a sprawling city studded with homes, irrigation channels, and more than 1,000 temples crowned with stone lingam, or phalluses. But ever since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge dotted Cambodia with millions of landmines in the 1970s, Lingapura’s ruins have sat mostly untouched.

For Damian Evans and Bill Saturno, now surveying Lingapura from atop a crumbling 1,000-year-old tower, the mines don’t really matter. Evans and Saturno are among a growing group of archaeologists who use radar, satellite imagery and other advanced technologies to uncover the mysteries surrounding ancient civilizations. This young vanguard of scholars explores not only regions where violence rules out groundwork, but also sites previously invisible from the ground: the ocean floor, dense jungle, even buried cities. They are transforming archaeology from a gritty, hands-on profession into an office job—what NASA terms, in program-funding documents, “space archaeology.” In doing so, they’re unearthing whole civilizations and rewriting history books: reshaping, in a few short years, the study of our preindustrial past.

Here in Cambodia, the new archaeology has changed the history of a civilization. The low-key Evans, a director of the University of Sydney’s Greater Angkor Project at just 32 years old, has already mapped northern Angkor, another heavily landmined area, from a computer screen in Australia. He has used radar and satellite images to chart its vast network of canals and reservoirs, proving that Angkor was once the largest city in the world, a metropolis consuming an area about the size of present-day Los Angeles. His work also underpins a radical new explanation of why, in the 15th century, the Angkor civilization died out, a finding that holds grave undertones for the megacities of the 21st century.

Now Evans has set out to map nearby Lingapura. The first stop in his mission is this tower, the closest approximation he can get to the vantage point of a satellite. When humans construct a house, field or temple, they alter the surrounding plants and trees—either deliberately, through farming or grooming the forest, or unintentionally, by enriching the soil with meal scraps and organic waste. This process creates vegetative trails that can linger for centuries. The team’s goal today is to discover what kinds of vegetation grow at Lingapura’s settlements and nowhere else—the space archaeologist’s equivalent of the X that marks the spot.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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