Pioneer in Satellite Archaeology Wins Million-Dollar Prize

Egyptologist and National Geographic explorer Sarah Parcak uses high-flying cameras to reveal lost cities and save ancient treasures from looters.

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Egyptologist Sarah Parcak, winner of the $1 million TED Prize, envisions dramatic discoveries fueled by technology. “The future of archeology is just unbelievable,” she says.

Sarah Parcak credits the Tooth Fairy for sparking her first dreams of working as an archeologist in Egypt. “When I was a little girl in Maine in the 1980s and I lost my first tooth, the next morning I found an amazing book about the history of Egypt under my pillow.”

Nowadays the pioneering Egyptologist often looks toward the sky to locate treasures buried underground. Parcak, winner of the 2016 TED Prize, which was announced today, has pioneered the use of satellite imaging systems to map, quantify, and protect humanity’s past. These electronic eyes in the sky are helping archaeologists discover an invisible world of lost tombs, temples, and pyramids—even an entire Egyptian city buried for 3,000 years.

“We knew from ancient writings that there was a place called Tanis,” says Parcak, who founded and directs the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “But we probably wouldn’t have noticed it from the ground, even if we walked right over it.”

Parcak analyzed infrared and laser-generated images captured from 700 miles above the Earth to detect the buried remains of buildings, which affect the overlying soils, vegetation, and water. Because ancient Egyptians built most structures out of mud bricks, which are much denser than the soil that surrounds them, Parcak and her team could see the shapes of houses, temples, and tombs.

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In a 2009 satellite image (top) of el Hibeh, Egypt, few looting holes are seen. A image made in 2012 (bottom) shows many looting holes.

“We were able to create a map that looks like something you’d pull out and use today to find your way around a town,” says Parcak, a National Geographic Explorer. “There’s a detailed network of streets and houses, and you can even see the class divisions. There’s a poor part of town with small houses and a wealthy neighborhood near the palace with big villas and shops and the best breeze.”

New Revelations Are Rewriting History

The burgeoning field of space archaeology is allowing researchers to map and model everything from buried Mayan ruins in Central America to hidden structures along Central Asia’s Silk Road. Using images captured by satellites, archaeologists can more precisely target their excavations and surveys.

"The time and cost savings are enormous," says Parcak, who analyzed satellite imagery in advance of recent fieldwork in Egypt. “I found about 70 sites in three weeks. It would have taken me at least three years if I’d approached it as a traditional foot survey.”

With each new batch of images, it becomes increasingly clear that archaeologists have vastly underestimated the size and scale of past human settlements. “What we’re finding is that everywhere you look there are sites,” says Parcak. “Massive sites are turning out to be many times bigger and more complex than we ever imagined.” Parcak estimates that less than 1 percent of ancient Egypt has been discovered and excavated.

Tracking Looters from Space

Satellite images have also revealed the accelerating scale of looting at sites around the world—particularly in Egypt, where civil order broke down during the revolution in 2011. According to Parcak, images made from space can be used to track the destruction of archeological sites and could be part of a coordinated effort to reverse the tide of looting and illegal antiquities trafficking.

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Satellite photos made in 2010 (top) and 2013 (bottom) document an upsurge in looting at the ancient site of South Dashur in Egypt. In the more recent image, the landscape is peppered with holes dug by looters.

Recently she led a pilot project to identify, track, and monitor looting at two archaeological sites south of Cairo. “We can tell from the pictures where people are digging, and even the time period of a tomb that’s been looted,” says Parcak. “Then we can alert law enforcement agencies to watch out for antiquities from that time that may come up for sale.”

Parcak says she’d eventually like to replicate the project at other sites around the world, allowing the archaeological community and other concerned people to report looting incidents through crowdsourcing sites.

“It’s an enormous and incredibly ambitious idea—to make the entire world aware and engaged in the problem,” says archaeologist Chris Thornton, senior director of the Cultural Heritage Initiative at the National Geographic Society, which supports Parcak’s research. “But Sarah doesn’t think small; she only thinks in huge bright colors and big brush strokes.”

Answering Big Questions

While putting the latest aerospace technology to work in archeology’s race against looters, urban sprawl, and changing climate, Parcak looks forward to using emerging data to answer some of the field’s oldest and biggest questions: Why did the Pyramid Age end, and why did ancient Egypt collapse? Why did the course of Nile River change over time? How did humans shape landscapes, and how did landscapes shape us?

“There are all sorts of fascinating questions technology can help us answer,” Parcak says. "I hope my work contributes to an understanding of how we survive and thrive or fail during crises—whether they’re environmental, social, or economic.”

The $1 million TED Prize—awarded annually to a leader with a fresh, bold vision for sparking global change—is intended to fund a world-changing “dream project,” which Parcak will reveal early next year at the 2016 TED Conference.

In the meantime, the technology Parcak uses is improving “at an astonishing rate,” she says. Later this month, she and her team will get their first look at images from a new satellite camera so powerful it can depict objects less than one foot in size. “It’s not like we’re zooming in from space and looking at potsherds, but talk to me in 10 years. The future of archeology is just unbelievable.”

Of course any discoveries made by these high-flying cameras will still need to be confirmed by archeologists working on the ground with trowels and sifting screens. The notion that there will always be a place for old-fashioned digging and discovery is one that Parcak finds comforting.

“After teaching and working in the lab most of the year, I really need to get out in the field,” she says. “If my dirt-to-blood ratio gets below a certain threshold, I go completely bonkers.”

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