• 11.09.15

The TED Prize Goes To Archaeologist Sarah Parcak, To Save Ancient Ruins With Satellite Images

As ruins from the dawn of civilization are slowly destroyed and looted, how can we stop it?

The TED Prize Goes To Archaeologist Sarah Parcak, To Save Ancient Ruins With Satellite Images
[Photos: Flickr user Varun Shiv Kapur]

The Middle East is the cradle of civilization. People have been living there, around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, for longer than recorded history. It’s the artifacts of their civilizations–the pottery, writings, art, and buildings–that have taught us much of what we know about how our society developed. It’s also not a particularly safe place these days.


So 2016 TED winner Sarah Parcak is hoping to use her $1 million in prize money to help preserve these sites by continuing her groundbreaking work of using satellite imagery to both find unknown ancient sites and monitoring them for looting and destruction. Beyond the threat of ISIS blowing up or bulldozing ancient temples as a testament to nihilism, sites across the Middle East are under especially high risk for looting. And when looters carve up a site to get the artifacts out quickly to sell on the black market, there’s very little left for archaeologists to discover: What’s important is where everything was found. Without that, we can learn very little.

In a statement released by TED, Parcak notes how devastating the conflagration of the Middle East has been to the archaeological record: “The last four and 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.”

Parcak is a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a National Geographic Fellow (as well as a former TED Fellow). In the past, she’s used her pioneering satellite techniques to discover 17 previously unknown Egyptian pyramids and thousands of other ancient sites around Europe and the Mediterranean.

She’ll explain more about what she’ll do with the extra $1 million to fund her work at her TED Talk in February 2016. The question remains: even if we know what sites are getting destroyed, what can we do to prevent it?

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Ideas section, formerly