Beyond Site Detection: The Role of Satellite Remote Sensing in Analysing Archaeological Problems. A Case Study in Lithic Resource Procurement in the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile


Remote sensing archaeology in recent years has emphasized the use of high-precision and high-accuracy tools to achieve the detailed documentation of archaeological elements (drones, LIDAR, etc.). Satellite remote sensing has also benefited from an increase in the spatial and spectral resolution of the sensors, which is enabling the discovery and documentation of new archaeological features and sites worldwide. While there can be no doubt that a great deal is being gained via such “site detection” approaches, there still remains the possibility of further exploring remote sensing methods to analyse archaeological problems. In this paper, this issue is discussed by focusing on one common archaeological topic: the mapping of environmental resources used in the past and, in particular, the procurement of lithic raw material by hunter-gatherer groups. This is illustrated by showing how the combined use of Landsat 8 images and “ground-truthing” via focused field studies has allowed the identification of a number of potential chert sources, the major lithic resource used by coastal groups between 11,500–1,500 cal. BP, in a vast area of the Atacama Desert covering 22,500 km2. Besides discussing the case study, the strength of remote sensing techniques in addressing archaeological questions comprising large spatial scales is highlighted, stressing the key role they can play in the detection and study of specific environmental resources within challenging physical settings.

Remote sensing