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Space Archaeology: Combining Past and Future

National Geographic Explorer and TED Prize-winner Dr. Sarah Parcak discusses the complex study of space archaeology, exploring how the field helps shape the past and future.

By
Sarah Parcak
archaeology from space module

1. What is “space archaeology”?

It’s a fun term for the general public that describes how archaeologists use diverse remote sensing datasets—from lasers to space based imaging systems—to map partially to totally invisible ancient features, from small walls to entire cities. Other terms are “satellite archaeology” “satellite remote sensing” and “remote sensing.”

2. How does remote sensing work?

Many satellite sensors capture light reflected off the Earth’s surface, recorded in the visible through infrared parts of the light spectrum. Scientists can order and download the satellite data either for free from NASA or from commercial companies for high resolution data. They then process it using off the shelf software, using differences in the vegetation, soil, or water content in the imagery to make subtle to otherwise invisible features appear—from small walls or roads to relic river courses or monumental structures.

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3. Why do archaeologists use satellites?

Satellites are one of a number of tools available to help archaeologists gain a better understanding of the landscapes around the sites where they work, and a way for them to discover features on sites or even entire sites in time and cost-efficient ways. It can take decades to survey regions, and satellites can help archaeological teams to zoom in on the exact places to look and map. Satellites can also help archaeologists find areas of sites that have experienced looting.

Studying archaeology allows us to contextualize all the bad and all the good and reframe how we deal with issues like climate change, migration, or societal collapse.

4. How did you start using satellite imagery?

I started my senior year at Yale, when I took an introductory remote sensing class. My first project was using NASA satellite imagery to locate modern water sources in Sinai that could potentially lead to the discovery of ancient sites. I expanded this research during my MPhil year to actual survey work in Sinai, and then in my PhD to areas across Egypt.

5. What is your greatest discovery?

My husband. I found him on my first excavation in Egypt back in 1999. Totally unexpected. I was looking for a date. I literally found him down a hole.

6. Where have you excavated/worked?

So many places. I’ve been lucky. Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Romania, Italy, Scotland, Iceland, Newfoundland, Peru…and a few places I can’t mention yet. I love the idea of working in more than one place…although directing a project in more than one country is daunting (having done it, I wouldn’t recommend it).

7. Where do you work in Egypt?

I co-direct a project with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities at an archaeological site called el-Lisht, ca 2 hours south of Cairo. It’s the home of ancient Egypt’s capital in the Middle Kingdom, ca. 1800 BC, Itj-tawy. The two kings who co-ruled at the start of Dynasty 12, Amemenhet I and Senwosret I, have pyramids there, along with the thousands of people who lived and worked in their court and in the capital. It’s really a special place. I’ve been working there since 2015, at a tomb of a person called Intef- who was a General and Overseer of the Treasury for Senwosret I. We’re also doing a big survey of the site to map tombs.

Studying archaeology allows us to contextualize all the bad and all the good and reframe how we deal with issues like climate change, migration, or societal collapse.

8. What is Globalxplorer?

Globalxplorer, or “GX” is a not for profit focused on using innovative technologies to empower the world to help map and protect its collective global heritage. The website we run, www.globaxplorer.org, is online citizen science satellite archaeology platform that allows anyone in the world, ages 5-105, to look at satellite imagery and help us find sites. We started the platform in Peru, and will continue to India and beyond. Our goal is to map the world in the next 10 years.

9. Does it work?

Since 2017, 80,000+ GlobalXplorers from over 100 countries have examined 14 million satellite images, uncovered 29,000+ anthropogenic features, mapped 700+ previously unknown major archaeological sites in Peru,  and created the conditions for our archaeological partner in  Peru to discover a new set of Nasca lines. Over 700 of those 29,000 features are major sites…so yes, I would say it works!

10. Why is archaeology important today?

We have this mistaken assumption that humanity has evolved significantly in hundreds of thousands of years. We think we have “modern” problems, but access to good food, water and healthcare, family issues, finding a nice place to raise your kids, and dealing with bad leaders are all issues as old as we are. Studying archaeology allows us to contextualize all the bad and all the good and reframe how we deal with issues like climate change, migration, or societal collapse. There is no one solution to any of those challenges, and studying the past enriches our ability to handle them, and in some cases, solve them.

satellite images

11. Why is archaeology important for our future?

Archaeology teaches us great humility. By putting together all the pieces on digs—from the tiniest seeds and charcoal and pottery and tiny objects to burials and the larger monumental finds we sometimes make—we begin to see patterns and trends on sites and across regions and even entire ancient cultures. We can begin to understand the ebbs and flows of how societies rise and collapse, deal with climate change, war, disease, corruption, trade, diplomacy…so many issues we think of as “modern”, and yet are all many thousands of years old. We gain insights into our foibles and strengths, and we have a chance to learn from them, to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We obviously have a very long way to go, but if more people understood archaeology and history, we’d stop and think more about the huge decisions we are making every day, especially world leaders.

If more people understood archaeology and history, we’d stop and think more about the huge decisions we are making every day, especially world leaders.

12. Do you see yourself as a role model for girls?

I hope I am! There aren’t enough prominent women in science, period. The quote “if you can see it, you can be it” is so true. I had no role models growing up on TV, only dudes. There are more guys named Josh who’ve gotten their own archaeology TV shows than women, period. I can’t name a single female archaeologist in the US who has fronted her own TV series. Things are better in the UK for women on TV, but the audience is smaller. I love getting letters or emails from parents of girls who have been inspired by seeing me…it gives a greater purpose to what I do. I try to set a good example every day.

13. What will be the greatest discovery in the next 1-10 years?

That we are in a golden age of archaeological discovery. People are beginning to realize this—vwith all the DNA discoveries, as controversial as some of them are, with all the new sites announced every week it seems in the media, all the new insights into new hominid species and how and where and why we moved across Earth. It’s a firehose of knowledge treasure, and I’m so here for it. 

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