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Introduction to Virtual Globes

Virtual globes and web mapping have become an easy and accessible way of finding, distributing and visualizing all sorts of data in a geographical context. The basis of this technology are the confluence of centuries of geometric and cartographic techniques, the increasing availability of previously limited satellite data in the public sphere, and the attractive ‘virtual reality’ of science fiction computer games and cinematography, all linked by some clever image compression techniques over the ever broadening bandwidth of the internet. Google Earth, NASA WorldWind and ESRI’s ArcExplorer allow the integration of a large amount of data over satellite image and terrain data. Obviously each software has advantages and disadvantage, though expect some convergence between them. Increasingly these technologies have become mobile and web friendly.

For archaeology, these new tools allow the interested amateur and seasoned professional alike to zoom scales from outer space to the scale of site plans, and in the future, potentially could zoom down to one-to-one or even smaller-scales. Camera angles can be tilted, and points and layers added and removed at will. That data can be added easily by almost anyone, means a massive democraticization of geographical representation, but this increases the need for good scholarly verification and a critical consideration of the meaning of the data presented. The transfer of traditional paper-based gazetteers of site locations, and comparison with many published maps will reveal the relative imprecision of the locational information that has been available to archaeologists in the past. It also introduces new ethical issues of archaeological site protection, with the questions over whether accurate site co-ordinates should be distributed, if they may be used by looters as well as archaeologists.

The ability to zoom between vastly different geographical scales to explore the full range of archaeological questions was an essential part of Andrew Sherratt’s original intellectual foundation for ArchAtlas as an interpretative archaeological atlas, and he believed these tools would facilitate part of what he had been trying to do for 30 years in the integration of global, regional and local scales of geo-archaeological analysis.

Here at , we’d like to hear what people are doing with these tools, and are willing to host or publish on this site, results, links and experimental projects, which are relevant to the field of archaeology. Please contact us via the feedback page.

Virtual Globe Extensions

Between 2005 and 2015, ArchAtlas hosted two Virtual Globe Extensions, one for the desktop version of NASA WorldWind and one, KML-based, for Google Earth. Since then, the technologies have moved on, and NASA no longer supports the desktop version of WorldWind so the ArchAtlas WorldWind extension has been removed. However, KML has become a widespread industry-used spatial format and can be opened using many platforms. For this reason, we maintain a KML-feed of sites in the Atlas database at the following address:

For general Google Earth users, we suggest you first download and open the “ArchAtlas Atlas Feed”. This will automatically update sites from the feed if and when new sites are added:

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Data is provided ‘as is’: while every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, users are cautioned that this is a working database and should not be relied upon without further confirmation. The site’s normal disclaimer also still applies.