When we think of archaeologists, we tend to think of people huddled around a dig site carefully excavating an area. But Sarah Parcak is changing that perception. Parcak doesn’t just look into the ground. She looks to the sky for help.
Using infrared imagery from satellites, she uses the best of modern technology to help find the ancient sites lost to time. In Egypt alone, she helped locate 17 potential pyramids, more than 1,000 tombs and 3,100 unknown settlements. While her specialty lies in Egypt, she also helped make numerous discoveries through the ancient Roman Empire.
So, how does this work? In a short 2012 TED speech, Parcak shows us. The image below shows an area in the eastern Egyptian delta called Mendes.
It’s brown. Nothing special here. But using infrared imagery and false color shows the chemical changes to the area caused by building activity and materials dating back to ancient Egypt.
She ended her short 2012 TED talk with one of her favorite quotes from ancient Egypt. “Sharing knowledge is the greatest of all callings. There’s nothing like it in the land.”
Parcak isn’t just using satellites to find ancient sites. She’s also using them to help protect them. And it’s this work that netted her the $1 million 2016 TED prize.
Satellite images help show areas where looters are active. And with the rise of ISIS, her work is even more important.
“The last four and half years have been horrific for archaeology. I’ve spent a lot of time, as have many of my colleagues, looking at the destruction,” she said. “This Prize is not about me. It’s about our field. It’s about the thousands of men and women around the world, particularly in the Middle East, who are defending and protecting sites.”
Many are dubbing Parcak as the modern-day Indiana Jones. It’s a comparison she embraces. Just take a look at her Twitter handle. But she’s quick to point out that discoveries are a team effort. And they are not easy.
“Discoveries aren’t made by one person exploring by themselves,” she said. “And discoveries aren’t made overnight. People don’t see the thousands of hours that go into it.”
What’s next for Parcak? On February 16, she will share her ambitious new plan to discover and protect the world’s ancient history in a TED Talk. Parcak wrote the textbook on satellite archaeology (no really, she did). I can’t wait to see what her next step is in discovering and preserving the culture of ancient civilizations.