Seriously, did Zahi Hawass just spank Sarah Parcak?
Zahi Hawass has responded to yesterday’s announcement, made through the BBC, that Sarah Parcak and the University of Alabama at Birmingham has revealed thousands of new sites in Egypt, including 17 ‘lost’ pyramids.
Minister of State for Antiquities (MSA) Zahi Hawass announced at the ministry in Zamalek that yesterday’s media reports that researchers from the University of Alabama in the United States had identified 17 lost pyramids and thousands of ancient Egyptian settlements via infrared images is not accurate.
Hawass told Ahram Online that satellite infrared images are only able to locate anomalies beneath the sand, which cannot be identified until archaeological research is carried out. “These anomalies could be anything: a house, a tomb, a temple or even geological features,” Hawass asserted.
He continued that these images offer assistance in discovering antiquities but are generally not accurate.
While it is true that infrared images show only “anomalies” under the sand that need to be confirmed through direct examination, dismissing this data out of hand as inaccurate ignores the incredible insights that can be gained through the use of these technologies. These images DO assist in uncovering antiquities, even if the researcher does have to take them with a grain of salt and go into the process with the recognition that rather than being a true ‘map’ to an undiscovered site, these are guides that help direct to areas of incredible interest in a sea of sand. As Dr. Hawass’s response to the BBC situation on his blog points out, satellite imagery has been used for quite some time in Egypt, but is (rightly) one of several tools used in archaeological exploration. The technology improves constantly, however, and what was impossible to discern from earlier images may now be quite clear.
The Art of Counting project has also encountered dismissive attitudes on occasion, as though statistical analysis is applicable to all other aspects of human existence but simply can’t reveal anything about ancient Egyptian imagery. Happily, there have been many scholars who have already joined the Art of Counting team, but new technologies can be overwhelming and somewhat frightening to those who do not understand them. Some scholars worry intensely that, with the advent of space archaeology and quantifiable analysis of iconography, ‘real’ Egyptologists will be pushed out and replaced by technology.
This couldn’t be further from the truth–both Dr. Parcak’s project and the Art of Counting are totally dependent upon the input of knowledgable scholars. We are using these technologies as tools to help us reveal secrets of the ancient past in the same way that Flinders Petrie used his trowels. Be honest–if Petrie had had analytical processes, relational databases, and space imagery at his disposal, you KNOW he would have jumped on it. Those thousands of notecards he painstakingly created were as close as he could get with what was available at his time. We’d be fools as scholars if we ignored the amazing potential of modern technologies.
It is likely that the biggest problem Dr. Hawass had with the announcement had to do with the fact that the Ministry of Antiquities didn’t make it.
For his part Harvey Lilley, producer of BBC Satellite project sent his apologies to Hawass. In an email obtained by Ahram Online, Lilley wrote: “Many apologies to you but this story was published before the official BBC press release was approved and released by us…. So as things stand I am not quite sure yet how the story broke without us doing you the courtesy of consulting you beforehand.”
According to MSA regulations, it is prohibited for any mission to announce a discovery before notifying and obtaining the approval of the MSA.
Now, I can understand when an archaeological mission is on the ground in Egypt and makes a discovery that it is the prerogative of the MSA to make the announcement to the world. However, when someone is working on a project using remote technologies and makes a discovery, why does this same policy apply? When the Art of Counting database is populated with thousands of objects and images and quantifiable analysis reveals a major pattern in iconographic appearance not previously recognized, do we have to ask the Ministry before announcing that discovery? If the BBC article was incorrectly released and contained actual inaccuracies, then those should be addressed, but the implication that the MSA has jurisdiction in space? Hmmm…