AMERICAN archaeologists using satellite imaging have discovered 17 unknown pyramids in Egypt as well as 1,000 tombs and 3,000 buildings dating back to the Pharaohs.
The infra-red images, taken from a satellite orbiting 430 miles above the Earth, show entire street plans of ancient towns.
At least two of the pyramids have since been visited by archaeologists guided to the sites located by the satellite, and the technique is being hailed as a significant breakthrough in archaeological surveying.
The extraordinary finds are documented in a programme to be broadcast by BBC television on May 30.
“This shows us how easy it is to underestimate both the size and scale of past human settlements,” said Sarah Parcak, of the University of Alabama. She used the same technique to identify tombs that had been broken into by looters during the chaos of the recent revolution in Egypt.
The infra-red imaging picks out the solid mud-brick structures used by ancient Egyptian builders from the sandy terrain in which they are often submerged. The cameras on the satellites are so powerful they can spot objects of less than a metre in diameter.
“These are just the sites close to the surface,” Dr Parcak told the BBC. “There are many thousands of additional sites that the Nile has covered with silt. This is just the beginning of this kind of work.”
Despite initial scepticism, the Egyptian authorities agreed to a trial excavation at the ancient site of Saqqara, outside Cairo, known for the step pyramids which pre-date the Pyramids of Giza.
There they found two buried pyramids – convincing the Egyptian antiquities ministry that the technique could be used for further exploration and to protect existing sites.
The full extent of the street plan of Tanis, once the capital of ancient Egypt, has also been revealed. The city, in the Nile Delta, was featured in the Steven Spielberg film Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, as the site dug up by the Nazis in their search for the Ark of the Covenant.
“A 3,000-year-old house that the satellite imagery had shown was excavated – and the outline of the structure matched the satellite imagery almost perfectly. That was real validation of the technology,” Dr Parcak said.
“We were very intensely doing this research for over a year. I could see the data as it was emerging, but for me the ‘Aha!’ moment was when I could step back and look at everything that we’d found. I couldn’t believe we could locate so many sites all over Egypt,” she said.
“To excavate a pyramid is the dream of every archaeologist.”