Putting TED2016’s Biggest Ideas to Work for Archaeology

Satellite archaeologist Sarah Parcak got feedback on her vision of launching a citizen science platform for archaeology after speaking at TED2016. She appreciated the chance to learn from “the collective wisdom” of people in a wide variety of fields. Photo by Marla Aufmuth/TED

The TED2016 conference, held in February in Vancouver, was a surreal experience.

I’d attended before, but this time I was there as the TED Prize winner. I had to give a talk and reveal my TED Prize wish: to create a 21st-century army of digital explorers working together to find unknown archaeological sites around the world. As if those stakes didn’t feel high enough, both Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg—gods to me, thanks to Indiana Jones—were in the audience.

The TED community’s reaction to my wish was incredible. People were supportive, kind, excited. I got to hear reactions from creative minds across industries. The cross-pollination of ideas that happens at TED is priceless, and as I listened to the speaker program, several talks felt spoken directly to me.

Here’s a look at four talks with implications for archaeologists, each of which made me think differently about my own work.

Casey Gerald of MBAs Across America gave a powerful talk on doubt. Photo by Ryan Lash/TED
Casey Gerald of MBAs Across America gave a powerful talk on doubt. Photo by Ryan Lash/TED

Doubt Is a Vital Thing

Casey Gerald gave one of my favorite talks of the conference, all about doubt. He grew up in the Second Coming of Christ church, and was sure the world would end on December 31, 1999. When it didn’t, he felt swallowed by doubt. Over the years, he’s come to see this as a positive. “The gospel of doubt,” he says, “asks that you believe a new thing: that it’s possible the answers we have are wrong.”

This is essential for archaeologists. When you’re looking at satellite imagery or digging at a site, it’s easy to look for evidence that confirms your hopes. It’s important to doubt all of your assumptions, and carefully examine all the possibilities to land on the right one.

In Egyptology, there are “obsessive pharoah-ologists,” people who are fascinated by a specific king or queen. Specializing is great, but obsession obscures your objectivity. It blinds you.

With the citizen science platform, I know we’re going to be surprised constantly. There will be places where we think we’re going to find a lot of ancient sites, and we’ll find nothing; there will be sites where we’re sure we won’t find anything—and bam!, we’ll uncover something that makes us question what we know about a culture. You have to doubt to get those surprises—and be correct about them. The best science comes with skepticism.

Raffaello D'Andrea's tiny drones can communicate locally to work together. They danced above the TED2016 audience's head. Photo by Bret Hartman/TED
Raffaello D’Andrea’s tiny drones danced above the TED2016 audience’s head. Photo by Bret Hartman/TED

Small Flying Machines Can Do Big Things

A magical moment of the conference came when Raffaello D’Andrea introduced us to the flying machines of the future. His swarms of tiny drones understand where they are in space and communicate locally to work together, to build a rope bridge or swirl overhead, like fireflies.

Raffaello’s talk got my mind racing.

Instead of doing remote sensing from an airplane or sending up one big drone that a government would have to approve, you could put mapping tools on mini-drones like the ones he demoed. You could do the imaging we do now at a much smaller scale, by putting different components on different drones and letting them work together to capture data. It’s a spark of an idea—but feels like a real possibility.

Parag Khanna believes that lines of communication are more important in the 21st century that national borders. Photo by Ryan Lash/TED
Parag Khanna believes that lines of communication are more important than national borders. Photo by Ryan Lash/TED

National Borders Are Meaningless

Modern borders are false constructs. So many cultures either extend or have extended across national lines. So I was fascinated by Parag Khanna’s talk in which he showed us a map of the world based on the human body—with modes of transportation as a skeleton and lines of communication as a vascular system. His point: Our world isn’t organized by sovereignty, but by communication.

As we map ancient sites, I expect to see this kind of transnationalism emerge.

We’re going to have to map multiple countries to get at specific civilizations, and we can start connecting cultures by where they settled and lived. But more than that, we’ll be able to see that all cultures throughout time have built incredible buildings, invented useful tools, and created art that resonates today. Perhaps it will increase our empathy for each other, as we see that we share a common past.

Dan Pallotta was one of several TED2016 speakers who asked us to think on the "moonshot" level. Photo by Bret Hartman/TED
Dan Pallotta was one of several TED2016 speakers who asked us to think on the “moonshot” level. Photo by Bret Hartman/TED

It’s Time To Think on the Moonshot Scale

“Moonshot” was the word of TED2016. Astro Teller asked us to work toward audacious goals and Mae Jemison outlined what it will take to achieve interstellar travel. Their talks made me realize: this platform is its own version of a moonshot. When you think about an archaeological site, you tend to think about just that one site. The platform we’re building is going to give us this big snapshot of many sites, all at once.

Remote-sensing is radical in and of itself. There’s a generational divide in archaeology, and those who come to remote sensing later in their careers have to pick their jaws up off the floor when they see the results. The platform is going to be like Moore’s Law—we’ll start by mapping one country, then we’ll add one or two more, but as data becomes more available and as processing gets faster, we’re going to scale exponentially. The data we’ll collect will force us to ask questions we haven’t imagined yet. It’s good to be made uncomfortable by new technologies; it lets you see new things.

Activist Dan Pallotta also spoke on “moonshots” and gave the quote of the conference: “We need more of the courage of drag queens and astronauts.” He felt elated watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and seeing drag queens in Los Angeles and New York risking everything to be themselves. Dan asked us to dream in two directions at once—toward advancements on the species-level scale, but also in at the individual level, moving toward kinder, gentler interactions that honor the moment we’re in and the people around us.

His talk gave me a new way to think about the TED Prize. This wish is not about me—it’s about the field. I’m just one of many who have devoted their lives to investigating the people who came before us. This citizen science platform will bring others into this incredible line of work.

As we discover more, perhaps we’ll start to answer some of the big questions of life. Perhaps we’ll start to imagine different kinds of dreams.

Acknowledging that people in the past lived lives worthy of investigation means so much more than it seems at first. It means that each of us is worthy of that attention too.

Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak is the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. She’s using the $1 million prize to build a citizen science platform to allow people all over the world to join the search for ancient sites. The platform will launch in summer or fall 2016 and, as she builds it, she’s bringing Explorers Journal readers along for the journey. Sign up for updates on this project, currently called Global Xplorer°.

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist, National Geographic Fellow, and the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. With this one-million-dollar prize, she’s building a citizen science platform that will allow anyone, anywhere, to join in the search for and protection of ancient sites by analyzing satellite images and detecting new sites as well as the tell-tale pits and marks of looting.