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Say hello to Google Ancient Earth? Today’s high-resolution satellites are now snapping photos of millennia-old archaeological sites, and may be the key to their preservation.

Every year, tourists flock to Egypt to see the Great Pyramids and the Temple of Luxor. But experts estimate that more than 99 percent of the region’s archaeological sites are still buried, leaving them at risk of being lost to looting and urban sprawl.

Using images taken by satellites—and commercially available on the internet—a research team led by archaeologist Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham has recently confirmed about 400 ancient sites in Egypt, some more than 5,000 years old.

Archaeological sites are usually covered with specific types of soil and vegetation, and absorb moisture differently than modern developments. These differences are difficult to observe on land, but pop out much more quickly when looking at a large region from space.

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The image above shows the Great Aten Temple at Tell el-Amarna, from Middle Egypt. The satellite’s high-resolution imaging technology “sees” the temple’s northern wall, even though it’s buried beneath a modern cemetery.

Parcak’s now working closely with Egypt’s Supreme Council for Egyptian Antiquities to plan excavations of these massive sites before modern development buries the historical treasures they undoubtedly hold. They’re “planning out more detailed work over the next few years,” she says. “There are thousands of sites out there waiting to be found, so we have our work cut out for us.”

Image Credit: Sarah H. Parcak, University of Alabama at Birmingham

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