Featured image (NASA/JPL Caltech)

In the 2012 fictional film, Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway discover an ancient star-map while working at an archaeological site in Scotland. The map matched several others which had been previously discovered. The archaeologists interpret the ancient maps as an “invitation” to visit a distant moon called LV-223, by a previous civilization who was potentially responsible for creating life on earth. A team of specialists on earth funded by a billionaire businessman, decide to send the archaeologists to the distant moon in order to discover who or what might have created life on earth – how they did it and why. 

Crew of the “Prometheus” being briefed on their mission to LV-223 (Scott Free Productions & 20th Century Fox)

The ship which carries the crew is called the Prometheus, named after the mythical Greek Titan who is credited with both creating man from clay, as well as stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man to ensure technological advancement and civilization. The crew of the spaceship eventually reach the distant moon, LV-223 to explore the surface, eventually finding an artificial structure, presumably built by the civilization (they call the “Engineers”) which had supposedly created life on earth. 

Here’s the thing. Space archaeology is REAL! 

But, it is nothing like what is portrayed in the story above (Sorry to disappoint you). 

Space archaeology utilizes high definition satellite images to study, map, and discover previously unknown ancient archaeological sites, ancient trade routes, and monitor sites where looting is a problem.

In the past few years two ancient sites have come to the world’s attention because of their catastrophic destruction by ISIS — Palmyra in Syria and Mosul (ancient Nineveh) in Iraq. Nineveh was first excavated by Austen Henry Layard in 1847 where he discovered the ancient Assyrian palace which contained engravings from the siege of Lachish mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 18-19, and Isaiah 10). Satellite images have sadly revealed the scale of destruction at these, and many other ancient sites [1]

In reality, space archaeology is just now coming into its own as a valuable tool for understanding the ancient Near East as well as the world of the Bible. 

The most recent advancement in the use of satellites orbiting the earth for archaeology is a project called GlobalXplorer, which launched in 2016. GlobalXplorer was the idea of Egyptologist Sara Parcak. Parcak employs high definition (HD) satellite imagery, alongside computer algorithms, to locate previously unknown archaeological sites. 

Utilizing these methods, she has helped locate 17 potential pyramids in Egypt, 3,100 forgotten settlements, and 1,000 lost tombs. Her goal in GlobalXplorer is to use crowdsourcing, enlisting anyone with the internet to help discover previously unknown archaeological sites. Parcak was able to build and launch GlobalXplorer by winning the 2016 TED Prize.

Having just launched in 2016, it will surely be exciting to learn of more remarkable discoveries made by Parcak and the GlobalXplorer platform!


In addition to discovering potential archaeological sites, space archaeology continues to help Near Eastern archaeologists understand the relationships between already known archaeological sites in Israel, Egypt, and the ancient Biblical world by land-use, ecology, and ancient trade routes.  

In 1999, the Satellite Atlas of the Bible was published in Cyprus by Røhr Productions. The two-volume satellite atlas of the Holy Land was compiled by gathering HD satellite images from both the French SPOT satellite as well as Landsat.

Image from the Satellite Atlas of the Bible (Røhr Productions, 1999). Showing the Galilee region of Israel from space.

In addition to the Satellite Atlas published in Cyprus, a one volume Satellite Atlas was written by William Schlegel in 2013. The atlas in an excellent resource for students of the Bible to understand the historical geography of the text. Since the events in the Bible were written in a real place and time, it is crucially important to understand the geographical background of the Bible. The Satellite Atlas contains many maps enhanced with high definition satellite images as well as detailed notes and articles which accompany each image.

3D view of the Galilee region (North) all the way to the Dead Sea (South), enhanced by satellite images helps one to see the contour relief of the land of Israel (Image from Satellite Atlas of the Bible, by William Schlegel, 2013)

Rediscovering the Earth & Rediscovering the Land of the Bible

I was born in June of 1969, and was barely a month old when Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and “Buzz” Aldrin made their historic moon landing. This momentous and extraordinary event was televised around the world via satellite to millions of people who heard Armstrong say those unforgettable words: “That’s one small step for man – and one giant leap for mankind.” Those words will definitely be remembered for centuries, because they are so very true. Equally true, however, were the words another astronaut spoke a year earlier in 1968. Before the historic moon landing, the United States sent manned missions to the moon, but stopped short of landing on the surface. It was on the Apollo 8 mission that astronaut William Anders stated, “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

The Holy Land from Space (Jewish Virtual Library)

Perhaps new advances in technologies will allow humans to explore space and other planets in the future, but the earth is also a place full of wonder and new discoveries.

One of the best ways that we can understand the Bible is to understand the land [eretz] – a real place – where it all took place, and where history is continuing to unfold every day.