Sarah Parcak, Space Archaeologist
Dr. Parcak uses satellite imaging to find undiscovered ruins and fight looters at ancient sites
Sarah Parcak can see looting at ancient sites—from space. Dr. Parcak, 37, who calls herself a space archaeologist, uses satellite imaging to find undiscovered ruins and to track those that have been compromised. In the past few years, she has spotted thousands of previously unknown tombs, temples and entire ancient cities, mostly in Egypt, and she isn’t slowing down. Meanwhile, looters of different sorts, from local residents to Islamic State terrorists, are raiding ruins in the Middle East for profit. “We’re in this race against time,” she says. “If we don’t go and find these sites, they’ll be gone.”
Her work is getting more attention. In November, Dr. Parcak received the $1 million 2016 TED Prize for her work as a satellite archaeologist. She plans to announce next month how she will use the money. On the day we met, she was in New York to appear on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” where she showed pictures of ancient settlements, potential pyramids and lost tombs that she had uncovered.
Over breakfast, she showed an example of a find she had helped to make: an image of a circular outline on an agricultural field near Rome’s Fiumicino airport. It turned out to be the remains of a 44-yard-wide amphitheater that archaeologists had sought for more than 30 years.
Satellite imagery has vastly improved over just the past two years, with applications ranging from mapping to weather tracking to monitoring crop acreage. The imagery can incorporate different wavelengths of light, like infrared, that the human eye can’t see.
The satellites that Dr. Parcak uses can pick up variations in vegetation health that suggest whether the plants are growing in regular soil or over buried remains. “We’re literally just beginning to learn how to use satellites to find sites,” she says excitedly. “More and more people are realizing there’s this incredible tool.”Dr. Parcak is a pioneer in space archaeology, a field that NASA named about a decade ago. She had long been intrigued by aerial photography, in part because her grandfather was among the first to use it in forestry. As a paratrooper in World War II, he had used aerial photos to help plan his jumps. He later used them to measure tree height and forest health.
That work inspired Dr. Parcak, who grew up in Bangor, Maine, to take a course on satellite imaging while she was an undergraduate at Yale University. After learning that no one had used such technology in archaeology, she wrote the first textbook on the subject. She later earned a Ph.D. in archaeology at Cambridge University.
These days, satellite imaging can reveal the extent of looting at sites. In a series of photographs (click here to view these photos), Dr. Parcak shows the increase over time in the number of looting holes—pits dug so that looters can get to ancient burial sites and steal valuable objects. Images can sometimes also pick up tents around the sites, an indication of where looters are digging. To prevent more thefts, she is careful not to publicly release any maps of newly found sites. She does give details to government officials.
Economic need often drives the looting. Some people who live near the sites don’t realize how historically important the antiquities are and sell them on the black market because they need the money. To address the problem, Dr. Parcak sometimes hires local residents so that they can learn about the objects, and she pays them enough that they aren’t tempted to steal.Looting isn’t just done by individuals. One of Islamic State’s major sources of income is the sale of antiquities from Syria and Iraq. When they take over land that is home to large archaeological sites, they lease it to looters and then take a percentage of the money from sales. Islamic State also has destroyed some ancient sites and relics, saying that they promote idolatry.
Dr. Parcak says that the international black market in antiquities is so vast that it’s hard to quantify. Some items, like a rare pottery bowl from the American southwest or a painted mummy from Egypt, can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And looting isn’t limited to certain regions. “It’s all over the world,” she says.
She is still trying to get a handle on how much remains undiscovered. “Even though I’ve been doing this for 15-plus years now, I’m consistently wrong,” she says. She is also calling attention to the danger that people in the field can face. In Syria last August, Islamic State militants executed Khalid Asaad, the 82-year-old director of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra. A sign placed on his body by his killers accused him of, among other things, managing the city’s collection of “idols” and going to academic conferences abroad.Dr. Parcak generally spends a few months a year on archaeological sites. She plans to return to Egypt this spring, where she will help to map some of her new finds. When she is not on site, she teaches archaeology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and has daily video calls with her Egyptian colleagues. Her husband is also an archaeologist specializing in Egypt. “I call him my best archaeological find,” she jokes. They live in Birmingham with their 3-year-old son.
In the future, she hopes to share more of her findings with governments so that they can detect patterns, preserve endangered areas and catch thieves. Despite the grim realities of looting, she enjoys the daily routine of the job. “You’re basically getting to do what every 5-year-old wants to do,” she says. “I dig in the sand, and I play with pretty pictures, so I never really left kindergarten.”