Google Earth and Archaeology

Serious Science and Serious Fun with GIS

Ollantaytambo, Peru
Ollantaytambo, Peru. Google Earth

Google Earth, software that uses high resolution satellite images of the entire planet to allow the user to get an incredible moving aerial view of our world, has stimulated some serious applications in archaeology--and seriously good fun for fans of archaeology.

One of the reasons I love flying in airplanes is the view you get from the window. Soaring over vast tracks of land and getting a glimpse of large archaeological sites (if you know what to look for, and the weather is right, and you're on the right side of the plane), is one of the great modern pleasures of the world today. Sadly, security issues and rising costs have sucked most of the fun out of airline trips these days. And, let's face it, even when all the climatological forces are right, there just aren't any labels on the ground to tell you what you're looking at anyway.

Google Earth Placemarks and Archaeology

But, using Google Earth and capitalizing on the talent and time of people like JQ Jacobs, you can see high resolution satellite photographs of the world, and easily find and investigate archaeological wonders like Machu Picchu, slowly floating down the mountains or racing through the narrow valley of the Inca trail like a Jedi knight, all without leaving your computer.

Essentially, Google Earth (or just GE) is an extremely detailed, high resolution map of the world. Its users add labels called placemarkers to the map, indicating cities and restaurants and sports arenas and geocaching sites, all using a fairly sophisticated Geographic Information System client. After they've created the placemarkers, the users post a link to them on one of the bulletin boards at Google Earth. But don't let the GIS connection scare you off! After installation and a little fussing with the interface, you too can zoom along the narrow steep-sided Inca trail in Peru or poke around the landscape at Stonehenge or take a visual tour of castles in Europe. Or if you've got the time to study up, you too can add placemarkers of your own.

JQ Jacobs has long been a contributor of quality content about archaeology on the Internet. With a wink, he warns would-be users, "I'm glimpsing a possible forthcoming chronic disorder, 'Google Earth Addiction'." In February of 2006, Jacobs began posting placemark files on his website, marking several archaeological sites with a concentration on Hopewellian earthworks of the American northeast. Another user on Google Earth is simply known as H21, who has assembled placemarkers for castles in France, and Roman and Greek amphitheatres. Some of the site placemarkers on Google Earth are simple location points, but others have lots of information attached--so be careful, like anywhere else on the Internet, there be dragons, er, inaccuracies.

Survey Techniques and Google Earth

On a more serious but downright exciting note, GE has also been used successfully to survey for archaeological sites. Searching for crop marks on aerial photos is a time-tested way to identify possible archaeological sites, so it seems reasonable that high resolution satellite imagery would be a fruitful source of identification. Sure enough, researcher Scott Madry, who is leading one of the oldest large-scale remote sensing projects on the planet called GIS and Remote Sensing for Archaeology: Burgundy, France, has had great success identifying archaeological sites using Google Earth. Sitting in his office at Chapel Hill, Madry used Google Earth to identify over 100 possible sites in France; fully 25% of those were previously unrecorded.

Find the Archaeology Game

Find the Archaeology is a game on the Google Earth community bulletin board where people post an aerial photograph of an archaeological site and players must figure out where in the world it is or what in the world it is. The answer--if it's been discovered--will be in postings at the bottom of the page; sometimes printed in white lettering so if you see the words "in white" click and drag your mouse over the area. There simply isn't yet a very good structure to the bulletin board, so I've collected several of the game entries in Find the Archaeology. Sign in to Google Earth to play; you don't need to have Google Earth installed to guess.

There is a bit of a process to trying Google Earth; but it's well worth the effort. First, make sure you have the recommended hardware to use Google Earth without driving you and your computer crazy. Then, download and install Google Earth to your computer. Once it has been installed, go to JQ's site and click on one of the links where he's created placemarks or follow another link in my collection.

After you've clicked on a placemark link, Google Earth will open and a marvelous image of the planet will spin to find the site and zoom in. Before flying in Google Earth, turn on the GE Community and Terrain layers; you'll find a series of layers in the left hand menu. Use your mouse wheel to zoom in closer or farther away. Click and drag to move the map east or west, north or south. Tilt the image or spin the globe by using the cross-compass in the upper right hand corner.

Placemarkers added by Google Earth users are indicated by an icon such as a yellow thumbtack. Click on an 'i' icon for detailed information, ground-level photos or further links for information. A blue-and-white cross indicates a ground level photograph. Some of the links take you to part of a Wikipedia entry. Users can also integrate data and media with geographic location in GE. For some Eastern Woodlands mound groups, Jacobs utilized his own GPS readings, linking online photography in the appropriate placemarks, and adding overlay placemarks with old Squier and Davis survey maps to display mounds now destroyed in their place.

If you really get ambitious, sign up for a Google Earth Community account and read their guidelines. Placemarks you contribute will appear on Google Earth when they update. There is a fairly steep learning curve to understanding how to add placemarks, but it can be done. More details on how to use Google Earth can be found at Google Earth on About, from About's guide to Google Marziah Karch, or JQ's Ancient Placemarkers page, or About's Space guide Nick Greene's Google Earth page.

Flying and Google Earth

Flying may not be an option for many of us these days, but this latest option from Google allows us to get much of the joy of flying without the hassle of going through security. And what a great way to learn about archaeology!

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Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "Google Earth and Archaeology." ThoughtCo, Nov. 24, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, November 24). Google Earth and Archaeology. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Google Earth and Archaeology." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).