Google Earth for Archaeologists

[This is a terse entry that exists mostly so I can refer colleagues to this when they ask me Google Earth questions.  Thanks to AB for suggesting this (sort of)].

Every once in awhile the media picks up a story about someone finding an archaeological site with Google Earth. That’s all fine and well, but there are some other ways to use Google Earth.. While Google Earth is not a complete GIS replacement, it’s more than capable of handling much of what most of us field archaeologists work with on a daily basis. You’ll still need GIS capability for modeling and analysis, but many days I work entirely with points, lines, polygons, topos and aerial photos. All of those can be done with Google Earth, at the low-cost of $0.00.  If I could have guaranteed Internet access while in the field, I’d switch my crews over to Google Earth.  We use Delorme XMap, which is a great program, but nothing navigates around aerial imagery as well as GE.

Here are some links to get you started (I’m assuming you already have and use Google Earth, and know how to download and use kml files.  If you don’t, do the tutorials.).


USGS Topos: Get the kml file at  Turn the layer on, and zoom in to your area of interest.

Historic USGS Topos:  The coverage is limited, but you might find something of interest.

USDA Soil Survey:  Visit   This has been tremendously helpful for me.  While various GIS coverages are available online, they are a bit of a pain.  You may still have to visit the Web Soil Survey for more detailed info, but having the data immediately at hand is tremendous.

Public Land Survey:   This is by far the coverage I use most.  Do a quick query and fly to your area of interest.


Historical Imagery: Google Earth has built in historical aerial images.  It’s a free time machine.  Here’s how to do it.

Image Overlays: Have an old aerial photo or a paper map you want to use?   You can do overlays in Google Earth.   It’s not as accurate as having your GIS person do a georectification, but it usually does the trick for me (and takes maybe 10 minutes).

Import your GPS Data into Google Earth:  The difficulty of this will depend on your unit.  For my Garmins, it is pretty easy.  Instructions here.

Export your Google Earth Data to Your GPS: Here’s the easy way.  Buy a Garmin and the Garmin Basecamp Software.  Export your data as a kml.  Open the kml in Basecamp and upload to your Garmin.  Otherwise, export your data as a kml, convert it using GPSBabel into whatever format you can upload to your GPS, and do so.