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The Future Of Archaeology Is Not Digging Anything Up

The 2016 TED Prize winner is reinventing how we discover–and preserve–the past.

Most archaeologists can be happy to uncover a small handful of important ancient sites in their careers. Sarah Parcak, a young professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has already pinpointed thousands, making her among the most productive archaeologist working today.

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How is this possible? She hunts for evidence of buried civilizations from the vantage of space. Using satellite imagery, she can see traces of underground artifacts that no one on Earth could ever spot without a shovel. In Egypt alone, where there are 138 known pyramids, she’s identified 17 potential new ones, as well as 1,000 tombs and 3,100 unknown settlements. All of this won her this year’s TED Prize, a $1 million award announced last week, along with countless comparisons to Indiana Jones.

The hidden road network of the ancient city of Tanis.

Parcak believes her most important discovery has been showing how much is left to be done. “The most exciting part of what I do is understanding the scale of what we don’t know. There are just countless archaeological sites all over the world, and one of the most important and best ways of finding them is using digital technology,” she says. “Everywhere that my team and I have looked, we have found them.”

Parcak, whose grandfather used aerial imagery working in the field of forestry, started exploring the use of satellite data in the early 2000s, just as it started to come more available and lower cost. She was surprised there has been few scientific articles on “space archaeology” up to that point, so she basically wrote the book for the field. Since, her methods have become broadly used. Using remote sensing satellites–which are equipped with sensors that detect infrared radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface–she can observe anomalies that may indicate unusual buried structures underground. For example, in Egypt, a buried mud brick tomb retains water in the ground differently than the surrounding sand–a subtle signature that would show up in the varied surface moisture levels detected by satellite.

Once potential sites are identified, of course, they must be verified by humans on the ground–so most of her potential sites have yet to be explored. As a result, she collaborates with many archaeologist all over the world. She describes one recent discovery made in Tunisia: Next to a Roman-era fort from 2,000 years ago, imagery showed something unusual was nearby. Upon further investigation, they encountered dense concentrations of slag–the evidence of burning.

Investigating a potential looting area in South Dashur, Egypt

“What we found was a massive pottery production center,” she says. The site was actually a settled center of trade, not just another of the typical forts that would have defended the ancient road in Roman times.

Her most relevant work today, unfortunately, has less to do with finding new sites and more to do with protecting ancient treasures that have already been discovered. Since the Arab Spring, many important archaeological sites in the Middle East and Northern Africa have been vulnerable to looting–and more recently, ISIS has been actively destroying humanity’s treasures in the areas they control. She’s collaborating closely with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities to inform authorities when there’s evidence of looting: “You can see the looting pits really clearly from space.” In Iraq and Syria, of course, there is much less that scholars can do, even when they have the evidence.

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Parcak sees a trend where the digging–can expose safely buried antiquities to looting and other dangerous becomes less necessary. “Technology is improving. At what point can we zoom in from space and see a tiny pot shard from a site? I think we’ll be there in 10 years,” she says.

In 20 or 30 years, she imagines archaeologists may stop excavating entirely and send tiny robots to explore underground—leaving the treasures undisturbed for the benefit of future generations.

In February, at TED’s annual conference, Parcak will announce what she plans to do with her $1 million prize. She says that funding will be a drop in the bucket to what the field needs: “Archaeology holds all the keys to understanding who we are and where we come from.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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