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Decorative wall

Satellite Imaging Exposes 4,000-year-old Tomb in the Dahshur Necropolis


A Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 BC – c.1700 BC) rock-cut tomb was discovered recently in El-Lisht, Egypt, which was the ancient archaeological site of the Dahshur necropolis. The tomb is located to the south of the pyramid of Senusret I.

Excavations led by Mohamed Youssef (Dahshur antiquities director) and Dr. Sarah Parcak (University of Alabama), uncovered the tomb, which is dated to the 12th Dynasty, the reign of King Senusret I (also known as Sesostris I and Senwosret I, ruled c. 1971–1926 BC). The tomb belongs to a man who is identified as the royal stamp bearer.

The entrance gate of the tomb.

The entrance gate of the tomb. (Ministry of Antiquities)

According to Ahram Online, the tomb is carved into the bedrock and has a mud brick ramp. The engravings discovered on the walls depict the stamp bearer at work, with family, and while hunting.

Wall scene depicting the deceased during hunting trip.

Wall scene depicting the deceased during hunting trip. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Finding the tomb is a happy surprise for the team, but it is not the main goal of their work. Ministry of Antiquities Mamdouh El-Damaty told the Luxor Times that “The mission has been working on documenting and preserving the result of illicit digs which took place after the 25th of January 2011 turmoil”. For the last five years, Dr. Sarah Percak has been training Egyptian archaeologists in the use of satellite technology to research and protect excavation sites from looters.

It is not surprising that this is not the first time Sarah Percak has supported her research with space technology. In 2011, she presented the discovery of 17 pyramids and thousands of tombs and settlements, all based on satellite pictures.

Satellite Image showing the location of the El-Lisht site.

Satellite Image showing the location of the El-Lisht site. (Luxor Times)

She also used the technology to map out the entire city of Tanis, the city of pharaohs of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069 BC – c. 664 BC). The map of the city is so well made, that it doesn't require much imagination to envision how the city looked in ancient times.

In her research, Parcak uses free and paid-for satellite data. "From NASA we get free, large-scale data sets [at] about 15 to 30 meters -- really good for broad landscape changes. Right now, the best information I can get is near-infrared, which is great for vegetation and soil. WorldView-3 goes into the mid-infrared wavelength, allowing you to see very subtle geological differences on the sites at a 0.4-meter resolution" she explained to Science. She also buys a pictures of 0.5 meters (1.64 ft) from DigitalGlobe.

Percak believes that her methods will change Egyptology forever, and it seems that she may be right. She uses techniques which allow her to find structures which are invisible to the naked eye. "The images are analyzed using computer-vision algorithms. We emphasize the features on satellite maps by adding colors to farmland, urban structures, archaeological sites, vegetation and water.'' Peracak told Science.

The approaches used by Sarah Percak have been used by archaeologists before her. However, previously the quality of the pictures wasn't so good or they were used only to better the research of smaller spaces like the Giza Necropolis and Theban Necropolis.

Mohamed Youssef and Sarah Percak at the El-Lisht site.

Mohamed Youssef and Sarah Percak at the El-Lisht site. (courtesy of the ministry of antiquities)

The project in the Theban Necropolis is known as the Theban Mapping Project and focuses on making the best database of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, Deir el-Medina, Deir el-Bahri, and other sites in the area.

Egypt isn't the only place where researchers use satellite photos in archaeological research. It is also a popular method in Latin America. In 2008, for example, a collaboration of archaeologists and NASA scientists led to the finding of  ruins of hidden Mayan cities in a Guatemalan jungle. That team was led by William Saturno and used pictures received from NASA and a GPS device to discover the location of the Mayan temples.

In 2013, a team led by Ivan Sprajc used satellite photos to discover the ruins of a Mayan city in the western Yucatan region of Mexico. The site covers 54 acres of land and includes the remains of buildings, ceremonial sculptures, and stele (rock monoliths) covered in writing.  It was inhabited during the late classical period of the Maya civilization, circa 600-900 AD.

2013 Image from the southeast complex at the Maya city called Chactún.

2013 Image from the southeast complex at the Maya city called Chactún. (National Institute of Anthropology and History)

These are just some of the many examples of how satellite imaging is aiding archaeologists in their work today.

Featured Image: Decorative wall. Source: Ministry of Antiquities

By Natalia Klimczak



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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