Space Archaeologist Sarah Parcak Wins $1 Million TED Prize To Find And Preserve Ancient Sites
Archaeologist Sarah Parcak, a specialist in Egyptology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has just been announced as the 2016 TED Prize winner. An annual award, the TED Prize goes to just one exceptional person who uses the funding to launch a high-impact project. And at the 2016 TED conference in February, Parcak will be discussing her project, which will include identifying and protecting archaeological sites in the Middle East and around the globe using satellite imagery.
She’s been called a space archaeologist, as Parcak uses satellite imagery beamed down from just outside Earth’s orbit to see archaeological sites that have been lost to time. But she doesn’t just browse Google GOOGL +0.00% Earth and decide where to stick her trowel in the ground. Parcak’s work involves infrared imagery to see more than is possible with the human eye, as well as advanced computer algorithms that help separate the ruins of ancient temples or tombs from mere piles of rocks. Her satellite mapping of Egypt unearthed 17 potentially unknown pyramids, as well as more than one thousand tombs and three thousand settlements. As she explains further in her six-minute 2012 TED talk, this method can find ancient cities that have been “missing” for millennia.
Archaeologists have been using aerial photography for centuries — originally using hot air balloons, then airplanes, and now drones — to see features like the Nazca lines in Peru, whose shape is much more obvious from above. Parcak’s work is a natural extension of this technology for the 21st century, and she has literally written the book on Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology. But using satellites for archaeology, Parcak notes in her National Geographic Explorer bio, is not easy and requires a “deep knowledge of historical events, the geology of how materials degrade over time, topography of landscapes, seasonal weather conditions, and the culture as a whole.”
Many of Parcak’s colleagues from around the world are lauding her past work and are excited to learn more about the development of her new TED-funded project. Archaeologist Rachel Opitz of the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas told me that Parcak’s work “has been important in promoting the use of aerial imagery to identify and monitor archaeological remains, particularly in Egypt and the Middle East. Her projects raise awareness of both the diversity and richness of the archaeological landscapes in these areas and the current threats to their preservation.”
Archaeologist Arlen Chase, associate dean for the College of Sciences at the University of Central Florida, told me that Parcak’s work in remote sensing “has always been at the forefront of the field of archaeology. Her satellite research goes beyond simply looking at imagery; she also uses spectral and chemical signatures to aid in her interpretations.” Chase is himself an expert at using technologies such as airborne lidar to peer through the heavily canopied jungles of Belize to find and document ancient Maya sites. While satellite imagery is still not as good as lidar for looking through heavy vegetation, Chase thinks that Parcak’s methodology “holds the greatest promise in the New World for helping understand and protect the many ancient sites and cities that occur in dry and treeless environments in parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.” In the Old World, he says, her work will “help prevent the extensive looting that has been occurring in the Middle East.”
According to a TED press release, Parcak insists that being named the 2016 TED Prize recipient is “not about me; it’s about our field – and the thousands of men and women around the world, particularly in the Middle East, who are defending and protecting sites. The last four and a half years have been horrific for archaeology. I’ve spent a lot of time, as have many of my colleagues, looking at the destruction. I am committed to using this Prize to engage the world in finding and protecting these global sites.”
This is perhaps the first time that an archaeologist has been part of a list of award recipients that includes Bono, Bill Clinton, and Jamie Oliver, but past TED winners have used their prizes to combat poverty, improve global health, and advance education. The world can follow along via webcast as Parcak delivers a TED talk launching her $1 million project on February 16, 2016.
Sarah Parcak’s blend of ambitious scientific research, historic preservation, and humanitarianism sets her apart, and the project that she puts together will undoubtedly reflect all of these aspects of her work.