Navigating Space Archaeology

Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist. And, with National Geographic’s help, she wants you to be one, too.

An Egyptologist by training (that’s the “archaeologist” part of her title), Parcak uses satellite imagery (there’s the “space” part) to uncover clues about ancient sites possibly hidden in vegetation and land-use patterns. Processing satellite images in near-infrared and short-wave infrared radiation allows Parcak to observe and document detail that would go unrecognized in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Using satellite technology, my colleagues and I have pinpointed what we think might be a suburb of Itj-tawy, the ancient capital of Egypt. We’ve located what appears to be the lost amphitheater of Portus in Italy. We’ve scanned the eastern coast of Canada and found a site that suggests the Norse might have pushed further into North America than previously believed. And we located a massive monumental platform in Petra, Jordan that archaeologists might have been walking over for decades.”

Ho hum.

Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic

Parcak’s innovative approach, as well as her tireless outreach to scientists, students, and the general public, helped her win the prestigious TED Prize in 2016.

“[The] prize,” she said, “is not about me; it’s about archaeology. It’s about our connection to the past. It’s about using technology and the power of the crowd to search for ancient treasures and put an end to looting and site destruction.”

Parcak put her $1 million prize money where her mouth was to found Global Xplorer°, a citizen science platform that allows anyone with an Internet connection to join in the search for, and protection of, ancient sites.

The first Global Xplorer° expedition took armchair archaeologists to Peru, where they sifted through millions of “tiles” taken from a DigitalGlobe satellite orbiting about 400 miles above the Land of the Incas. Guided by easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions, GlobalXplorers looked for “hints of looting, construction, or other encroachment, as well as signs of ruins that modern archaeologists have yet to find.”

Along the way, Parcak partnered with National Geographic to provide context and history to the Peru expedition. As they progressed with the project, GlobalXplorers “unlocked” rare resources from the National Geographic Society library and archives:

  • original articles about Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of the “lost city” of Machu Picchu
  • video explaining use of the Incan quipu system
  • images documenting life around Lake Titicaca, the highest freshwater lake in the world
  • video on the growing value of 3-D imaging to archaeology
  • maps navigating the extent of Andean civilizations, including the Inca, Wari, and Moche
  • satellite imagery of the mysterious “Nazca Lines”

Parcak and Global Xplorer° remain committed to the power of citizen science. “Archaeologists have explored less than 10% of the earth’s surface. Our amazing community of over 58k (and growing!) satellite explorers is determined to map the remaining 90% in 10 years!!”

Stay tuned for future expeditions, and keep track of Sarah Parcak with her blog series right here.

For more information on Sarah Parcak and other National Geographic explorers, dig through our timeline here.

Human Journey

, , , ,