Ever Dreamed of Being an Archaeologist?

Sarah Parcak program guide
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak)

Growing up, I was obsessed with Indiana Jones—and today, I’m lucky enough to be an archaeologist who digs regularly in Egypt. Now, I get to help others live out the dream with GlobalXplorer.

Here are some of their stories.

Sean Kohler, 42, works in Phoenix, Arizona as an IT architect for an insurance company. He enjoys his work, because it lets him figure out ways technology can make people’s lives better. But as a child, Sean dreamed of being an archaeologist.

“My mom had a subscription to National Geographic, and I remember a 1977 cover with this beautiful gold mask of King Tut on it. I can still see in my head,” he said. “I just had a feeling that’s what I wanted to do.”

Last year, after I spoke at a technology conference about GlobalXplorer.org—the citizen science platform for archaeology that lets anyone with an Internet connection search for ancient sites in satellite image tiles—Sean came rushing up to me and told me his story. He helped beta-test GlobalXplorer, and is now is one of the site’s superusers. He’s searched more than 10,000 image tiles so far, noting several with signs of possible looting and others where he may well have helped identify an ancient site that modern archaeologists don’t know about. He’s reached the rank of Adventurer.

“This feels like the right crossroads where my interests come together,” he said. “It’s using technology to help humanity.”

GlobalXplorer launched about a month ago. So far, 39,000 volunteers have helped search more than 8 million tiles in Expedition Peru. I’ve gotten photos from friends showing their kids working together to find sites, and received emails from retirees who are finding this an exciting way to use their free time.

All users of the site are making a real difference—they’re generating data that will help my team and our on-the-ground partners find and protect ancient sites. But the users I feel most excited to hear from are the ones like Sean—the ones who always wanted to be archaeologists, even if life took them in other directions. Now, they can make a real contribution to archaeology.

Sean Kohler works in IT, but is driving archaeological discovery forward as a GlobalXplorer user. The country he’d most like to search next? Scotland, where he visited last summer. (Photo courtesy of Sean Kohler)

Maha Venkatakrishnan, 44, tells a story similar to Sean’s—fascinating, as he grew up halfway around the world in India. He discovered his passion for exploration on summer vacations. “The day after annual exams were over, we’d be bundled up and taken to our grandmother’s home,” he said. “It was a fabulous place, 100-plus years old. Some rooms hadn’t been opened for 40, 45 years and were filled with things my grandfather had kept. I would rummage through and find things—like old coins.”

A seventh-grade lesson further sparked his interest. “I had a history teacher who told us all about the pyramids,” said Maha. “At the end of class, I asked him, ‘Sir, have you gone to Egypt?’ When he said he hadn’t, I told him, ‘One day, when I go to Egypt, I’ll take you with me.’”

Maha wanted to pursue a career in archaeology, but his family urged him in other directions. “Every mom and dad wants their sons or daughters to be an engineer or a doctor,” he said. And there was another issue too. “I come from a Brahmin family, and it is a bit of a taboo to dig up the dead,” he said. “The current generation isn’t as concerned with that, but to our parents, you are not supposed to do such things.”

Maha went into educational technology. But for his first big vacation, he knew where he wanted to go: Egypt. “I spent seven days at the Pyramids,” he said.

So when he saw a blog post about my work on TED.com with the headline, “It’s time we inverted the pyramids,” he knew he wanted to get involved. Maha has now searched 5,000 tiles tiles on GlobalXplorer and reached the rank of Pioneer. He looks forward to searching daily. “It’s exciting,” he said. “I used to wake up around 8 o’clock, but now I search in the mornings between 6:30 and 8am.”

Maha got — and GlobalXplorer lets him keep that alove. (Photo courtesy of Maha)
Maha visited the Pyramids for a week several years ago, and had the time of his life. Now, GlobalXplorer lets him turn his archaeology dreams into reality. (Photo courtesy of Maha Venkatakrishnan)

For Sean, a father of four, it’s hard to find the right time to search. “I go on three or four times a week,” he said. “I’m in Discovery now and there have been several times where I’m pretty sure I’ve found something. On one tile, there was a field and discoloration in the grass that looked like an old structure. I’m hoping that other people noted it too, and that the spot gets studied.”

When you work in archaeology, you notice that history is cyclical—that certain cultural patterns repeat. And our personal paths loop as well. From his early interest in archaeology, Sean set his sights on becoming a forest ranger and enlisted in the Navy to earn points on his civil service exam. In the Navy, he was assigned to be an electronics technician and used his GI Bill benefits to earn his degree in computer science. Then a talk at a technology conference looped him back to archaeology.

“I heard about GlobalXplorer at a time when we had news reports of ISIS destroying temples. I was devastated by that,” said Sean. “Searching is a little thing I can do to make a difference.”

And while he didn’t know much about Peru, Sean said he’s enjoyed learning more about the ancient cultures that lived there as he searches.

“Being able to get a bird’s-eye view and see another part of the world is just incredible,” he said.

Each tile on GlobalXplorer shows an area about the size of a few city blocks. The platform teaches anyone to spot signs of looting and urban encroachment—and as they advance to try their hand at discovering sites that might not be on modern archaeologist's radars.  (Image courtesy of GlobalXplorer)
Each GlobalXplorer tile shows an area the size of a few city blocks. The platform teaches anyone to spot signs of looting and urban encroachment—and to discover sites modern archaeologists might not know about.  (Image courtesy of GlobalXplorer)

Sarah Parcak launched GlobalXplorer with the 2016 TED Prize and invites anyone with an internet connection to help locate and protect ancient sites. DigitalGlobe has provided satellite imagery; National Geographic Society has contributed rich content; you’ll provide the analytical power. Join Expedition Peru and help the community search 20 million tiles »

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.