When on Google Earth?

One of the perks of working at the British School at Rome in the late nineties on the Tiber Valley Project was getting to play with the GIS, especially the digitized photos of the Tiber Valley taken during the war years. We used that GIS and those photos to re-locate sites discovered during the South Etruria Survey. It was enormous fun… but once I left the warm embrace of the BSR, GIS and aerial (or, perish the thought, satellite!) imagery was hard to come by for the lone academic. My experience was by no means unique. You had to be part of a well funded project to play with any of those toys. With the release of Google Earth in 2005, things changed rather drastically.

Adrian Myers, in the latest edition of the SAA Archaeological Review (September 2010), details many of the projects that have used GE for visualization, paedegogy, locating and mapping sites, quantifying looting, and exploring change over time. My contribution to archaeology is not so obviously useful. In early 2009, I came across ‘Where on Google Earth?’, a game played by geologists (not to be confused with ‘Where on Google Earth?’, a game for geographers, which I only came across this morning. Keep your eyes peeled for Why on Google Earth and How on Google Earth coming soon no doubt). One geologist grabs a screenshot showing some geological formation, posts it on a blog, and the first person to guess the formation and location gets the right to host the next round of the game. This struck me as fun, and so I posted ‘When On Google Earth #1’.

Call it ‘Where’s Waldo?’ for archaeologists, if you like. You can also think of it as a ‘barely game’ (and here), where you get to pretend to be an archaeologist, scouring the world for lost civilizations. As far as my forays into game design are concerned, this is far and away the most successful experiment that I’ve done. The list of past winners can be viewed here and here on its Facebook page (talk about taking on a life of its own!).

But what I’m wondering… how does this game jive with professional ethics? It’s just a game, right? Should I need be concerned with ethics?

Myers writes that

“GE might even be seen as a sort of panoptic viewing technology that has the potential to do violence upon those being viewed. This perspective of GE as panopticon surfaces a complex, provoking, and perhaps irresolvable tension. Any use of GE by archaeologists should be accompanied by thoughtful discussion on this tension; over time, this discussion might result in resolution.” (2010, 10)

When on Google Earth in some senses narrows the field of view; not so much panopticon as laser-sight. The game doesn’t employ any of the authentic tasks of an archaeologist, or at least, archaeology as currently practiced. Every site is stripped from its context. By extracting the site from its landscape, by focussing on ‘what time period? Where?’ the game would seem to promote a kind of antiquarian collecting. In which case, ‘it’s just a game’ is no defence at all.

…of course, maybe I’m just put out by the fact that I haven’t won a round in ages.

(other games being played on Google Earth are listed here)


  1. When on Google Earth is a bit like a treasure hunt, it’s good metal exercise, a bit of a competition, and I would encourage everyone to join in.

    Archaeologists who do commercial field work, have a natural advantage doing WOGE; we have no specialism, and are expected to identify any type of archaeology, from any period, and in a variety of conditions.

    GE is only dangerous if it is regarded as a panacea, leading to more traditional approaches to gathering knowledge being neglected.
    We have seen recent examples of new “Stonehenges” being proffered on the basis of geophysics alone.

  2. Hi Geoff,
    Thanks for your comment. I think you’re one of the ‘winningest’ WOGErs out there 🙂 What kind of strategy do you use to narrow things down?

  3. Great to see that the game is still going. We’ve been pretty successful at the game here at Moore Group in the past, but that may be because we are a we.. a hive mind of several. Now that the company is much reduced however, that advantage is gone. It did help that on one occasion that the site was located within mere km’s of 4 staff members homes (and even then it took us a while to identify it…). Our strategy in that case was that Billy identified his own house….

  4. @ Shawn.
    I have only once ‘known’ the site from the outset, and that is what got me into playing. After that it was just competitive drive, and perhaps too much time on my hands.

    I usually can guess the period and type of archaeology from the look of the thing, this narrows down the search. Geographical/topographical clues them come into play; the nature of the agriculture/ roads/ houses are all clues.
    Knowing your way around internet sources helps; lists of world heritage sites,regional archaeology sources, even simple picture searches can be useful. [If it is a proper site, someone will have photographed it eg. “Roman temple by the sea”].

    @ Declan; sorry to hear your Company has been reduced, you have my sympathy, good luck to all archaeologists in Ireland.

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