A French archaeologist works to finish up the excavation of a jaw bone from a preserved woolly mammoth skeleton, estimated to date from 125,000 to 200,000 years ago, at a quarry site in Changis-sur-Marne, East of Paris, Nov. 8, 2012. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
High-tech archaeology
Satellites offer new perspective on ancient sites
National Geographic, February issue

The image of archaeology is romantic but also decidedly messy, involving khaki-clad scientists digging through dirt and rock, gravel and mud, sand and dust. Lots of dust. But technological advances are allowing researchers to virtually dig through layers of ground, finding buried treasures without overturning a single rock. National Geographic reports that space satellites are capturing images of archaeological sites all over the world from 400 miles above Earth. The magazine compares the satellite imagery to medical scans: Just as doctors can examine body parts and organs beneath the skin, scientists can find objects hidden a foot beneath the surface. Infrared images are processed to reveal subtle surface changes, and suddenly a muddy mound is discovered to be hiding a row of ancient homes. Sarah Parcak, a University of Alabama archaeologist, has identified 17 potential buried pyramids, 3,000 settlements and 1,000 tombs across Egypt using satellite imagery, according to the magazine. At Tanis, a 3,000-year-old city in the Nile Delta, Parcak identified shallowly buried houses; so far, a team of French researchers has excavated one of those dwellings, according to the magazine. “Using laborious, low-tech excavation, it might have taken a century to assemble a similar city plan,” the magazine says. A bonus is that satellites give scientists eyes on locales that might be difficult or dangerous to visit in person. Of course, the article notes, someone eventually needs to confirm the satellites’ findings. “When it comes to archaeology, distance provides crucial perspective, but there’s no substitute for being up close.”

Maggie Fazeli Fard

A female monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, rests on a flower Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012. (John Dunham/AP)
Distinguishing the eye candy of the insect world
“A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America” by Jeffrey Glassberg

How can you tell the difference between a comma and a question mark, or a monarch and a viceroy, or even a pixie and an elf? Having 3,500 sharply focused color photos at the ready is one way to identify these and hundreds of other butterfly species found in North America. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association and the author of “A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America,” has spent a lifetime taking close-ups of wild, unrestrained butterflies. The result is a book that will appeal to both die-hard butterfly watchers and those who merely enjoy a nice bit of insect eye candy. The book’s words, while few, are thoughtful and thought-provoking. “Beginning their lives as caterpillars (which, like humans, are earthbound), butterflies — fragile, ephemeral and ethereal — are connected to the human soul and to the possibility of transformation.”

Carol Sottili