A Beautiful World: Help find Ancient Egyptian sites on your coffee break

Sarah Parcak is a professor of anthropology and a space archaeologist.
Sarah Parcak is a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a space archaeologist. Her new book is called "Archaeology from Space."
Courtesy of Sarah Parcak

What's cooler than Indiana Jones? Indiana Jones in space.

Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist. She was a child of the '80s and one of her favorite movies was "Raiders of the Lost Ark." She says she "fell in love with the idea of archaeology and discovery."

Also while growing up, Sarah spent a lot of time with her grandfather, Harold Young, a forestry professor at the University of Maine. He was one of the pioneers in using aerial photographs to identify and measure areas of forest.

Combining her love of Egyptology with the technology of aerial investigation, Sarah became a space archaeologist. She uses satellite imagery to map and model ancient landscapes here on Earth.

"Everything on the surface of the planet has its own chemical signature," she explained. "Think of how each person writes their name. Everybody writes their name differently. Well, the same thing kind of applies to everything on the Earth's surface. Whether you're sand or soil or a type of vegetation, you're going to look a little bit different."

'Archaeology from Space' by Sarah Parcak
Sarah Parcak is a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a space archaeologist. Her new book is called "Archaeology from Space."
Courtesy of Henry Holt and Co.

Sarah runs images of ancient sites through computer algorithms that analyze parts of the light spectrum we can't see with our eyes. For instance, plants growing on top of a stone wall have a chemical register different from those growing in soil. This makes it possible to find stone walls and roads.

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"Think of it like a space-based X-ray, where you're seeing things that are otherwise invisible or hidden to us on the ground," she said. "So then once you've identified this very specific chemical signature of an archaeological site, you then apply these techniques and algorithms that make other features pop out as well."

Sarah used this technique to discover some incredible ancient sites in Peru, Nova Scotia and Egypt, including the lost city of Tanis, which figures in the plot of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

"Tanis was Egypt's capital, about 3,000 years ago," she explained. "So, think King Tut. Lots of gold, lots of imperialism, lots of foreign expeditions, it's an incredibly wealthy time. It was Egypt's capital for 400 years. It's hard for us in the U.S. to get our head around it, because we as a nation are not 400 years old. Tanis is a massive, massive city. There would have been tens of thousands of people that would have lived there. There would have been palaces and large administrative complexes ... think of like a combined Washington D.C., L.A., New York all rolled into one."

Sarah said she loves archaeology because it gives her insights on what it means to be human. She uses her technology not only to uncover history, but also to save it.

Sarah Parcak uses satellite imagery to map and model ancient landscapes
Sarah Parcak uses satellite imagery to map and model ancient landscapes on Earth. She used this technique to discover the lost city of Tanis, which is featured in the plot of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Courtesy of Sarah Parcak

"So many sites around the world are getting destroyed — not just by ISIL," or ISIS, "but by urbanization, by deforestation, by the rising waters due to climate change," she said. "So if we don't map these sites quickly and get a sense of what's there, how can we even know what to protect?"

Sarah decided in order to save all the archaeological sites on the planet, she was going to need a lot of help. So she set up an organization called GlobalXplorer, which allows anyone in the world to look at satellite imagery and help map and find ancient ruins.

"GlobalXplorer has over 86,000 participants, from nearly every country in the world. The crowd has found close to 20,000 potential archaeological sites. We collaborated with a team of archaeologists that took data that the crowd found in the Nazca region and it helped them to find over 50 new Nazca lines, those beautiful animals and shapes and figures that are carved into the landscape."

One of Sarah's favorite citizen scientists is Doris Jones.

"Doris is 92 years old. She is disabled and lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Doris ended up being one of our super users — she's looked at tens of thousands of archaeological tiles. She's this bright spark in the universe.

"She said she felt part of this much bigger community, in spite of the fact that she has difficulty leaving home. So to me, when I learned that Doris and others like her were using the platform, I felt, you know, we've done something right."

With the help of Doris Jones and other citizen scientists, Sarah hopes to map the entire planet in 10 years.

"I think we are in this race against time," she said. "Archaeologists can't do it by themselves. You know so many government ministries around the world are struggling with funding and support. So we need the eyes of the world on these sites to help empower archaeologists and heritage people and governments to do their jobs better. And that's why I wrote the book."

Sarah Parcak is a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a space archaeologist. Her new book is called "Archaeology from Space."