AI isn't on the way … it's already here.
Dr. Sarah Parcak is the world’s leading space archaeologist. Her use of satellite technology has allowed her go further than others and has made her a prize winning pioneer as well as an expert in the field of Egyptology.
Dr. Parcak uses satellite images to locate lost ancient sites. Her efforts to protect the world’s shared cultural heritage in 2016 landed her both a million dollar TED prize and special recognition from the Smithsonian Institution with an ‘Ingenuity Award’.
Her current project is an experiment in crowdsourcing archaeology and aims to train the next wave of global explorers.
- Sarah Parcak Professor of archaeology, University of Alabama Birmingham; National Geographic Fellow
How To Become The High-Tech Indiana Jones
“Like anything else, most of my job is being in meetings, writing grants —the teaching is the fun part,” Parcak says.
“It’s that excitement of adventure and exploration, and that’s what you get from watching Indiana Jones — that’s what got us into it. I tell people, I actually have stories of adventures within the field some of which are more exciting and harrowing than Indiana Jones.
“You see the look on his face when he’s holding an object or that desire to find something, that’s in the field. The excitement and joy that you feel when you uncover something and you know your the first person to have seen it in thousands of years, it’s such an incredible privilege and incredible honor. ”
How Technology Is Changing Archeology
“Archeology is in this really exciting transformative phase in that it is more of a science than anything else. Archeologists are using DNA analysis to look at bones, they’re looking at chemical analysis to study residues left in ancient pots that are excavated,” Parcak says.
“On the ground, we have a big team of specialists that are working. So you have your human remains specialist, your ceramics specialist, your archeologist, your conservators, your artists — it’s really like conducting an orchestra when you’re in the field. Trying to get as much information as possible out of the ground. This is why we rely on all of these state of the art technologies, not just satellites, but things like magnetometers, and ground penetrating radars that allow us to see an invisible world beneath our feet.”
On Using Satellite Technology To Find Ancient Ruins
“Think of satellites as a space-based CAT scan,” Parcak says. “You are walking over a patch of ground and really it doesn’t look like much whether you are in the desert, or in the flood plane. It just looks like a large brown sandy area, maybe a few monuments or ancient ruins are peaking out of the ground.
“What we do with the satellite imagery is, it’s captured in different parts of the light spectrum that we can’t see. So the near, middle and far infrared. We download this data and process it using standard off the shelf software and algorithms that allow us to really make visible this otherwise completely hidden world by combining bans of information together. What ends up happening is a patch of ground that you’ve walked over hundreds of times, you suddenly realize, your walking over dozens of tombs and you don’t even know they’re there.
“We’ve seen a really big transition in the last couple of years — especially with all of the great tech savvy twenty-somethings that are going through grad school. With the advent of Google Earth, it’s something everyone can use. Now it’s rare to go to an archeology conference and not see an archeologist show at least one satellite image. I think, especially now, I can say it’s a standard part of the archaeological toolkit.”
Fighting Looting During The Arab Spring
“We started hearing rumors of archeological sites south of Cairo being looted,” Parcak says of the protests that began in 2010. “Looting is an activity that is as old as we are. Most of the tombs in Ancient Egypt were looted shortly after the kings were buried in them. We thought, Gosh. How can we prove whether or not looting there is happening?
“I had great satellite imagery coverage of many sites in Egypt through the end of 2010. With support from the National Geographic Society, we were able to get brand new satellite images taken that February, which unfortunately showed that there was active looting going on. I shortly after went to Egypt. I shared this information with Egypt’s administration of antiquities and their government. They were able to use that data to help step in and stop the looting. ”
Her New Project
“GlobalXplorer, which is being funded by the 2016 TED Prize and is being done in partnership with Digital Globe as well as the National Geographic Society, is an online crowdsourcing platform that will allow anyone in the world to look at satellite imagery, and help us find archeological sites and map looting,” Parcak says.
“At the end of the day, even though myself and my team and a lot of other people around the world are doing this work — that’s not enough. We need to engage the world with discovery. I want to democratize the process of exploration — let anyone from 5 to 95 participate in finding ancient things.
“I want to reopen everyone’s eyes and get everyone to realize they are explorers.”