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Undiscovered pyramids show up on satellite imagery

U.S. archaeologists have used satellite imaging to discover 17 pyramids buried beneath silt and sand in Egypt.
A guide stands near the Djoser's step pyramid in Saqqara, south of Cairo. Satellite imagery has shown at least two buried pyramids nearby, as well as tombs and other buildings. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

U.S. archaeologists have used satellite imaging to discover 17 pyramids buried beneath silt and sand in Egypt.

The research, supported by a BBC documentary unit, also revealed more than 1,000 tombs and 3,000 other buildings dating to the time of the Pharaohs. On the satellite images, kiln-fired bricks used to build ancient cities can be distinguished from the earth covering it.

"I couldn't believe we could locate so many sites all over Egypt," said Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who led the research team. "To excavate a pyramid is the dream of every archaeologist."

"These are just the sites [close to] the surface," Parcak told the BBC. "There are many thousands of additional sites that the Nile has covered over with silt. This is just the beginning of this kind of work."

Zahi Hawass, Egypt's head of antiquities, expressed skepticism about the findings in an interview with Reuters, saying only traditional archeology — involving digging on the sites —will prove the existence of the ancient buildings.

Egyptian authorities have agreed to a trial excavation at the ancient site of Saqqara, 30 km south of Cairo, which is already known for its "step" pyramids, and for tombs that recently opened to the public.

A French archeological team found two buried pyramids on the site, confirming the accuracy of the satellite imaging.

The infrared imagery, taken from 690 km above the earth, is showing the ghostly outlines of entire cities, including Tanis, once the capital of ancient Egypt.

Parcak's  team spent more than a year poring over existing satellite imagery of Egypt's Nile Delta from NASA and from commercial satellites to make their discoveries. Her pioneering work is being hailed as a breakthrough in pinpointing archaeological sites for excavation.

The BBC documentary, Egypt's Lost Cities, was broadcast Monday in the U.K.

With files from The Associated Press