This Archaeologist Hunts Ancient Cities, And Looters, From Space — And She Just Won $1M

Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak doesn’t think small, she thinks in “huge bright colors and big brush strokes.”

Those are the words of Chris Thornton with the National Geographic Society, where Parcak is an Explorer. The space archaeologist also the latest recipient of the $1 million TED Prize, given to people with visions that can spark global change.

The money will be used to fund the space archaeologist‘s “dream project,” which she’ll reveal next year, National Geographic reported.

But right now, her pet project and her passion is protecting the world’s archaeological sites from looters — and there is plenty to protect. The space archaeologist estimates that less than 1 percent of the world’s ancient sites have even been discovered, leaving millennia of human history unprotected.

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“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. This Prize is not about me. It’s about our field. It’s about the thousands of men and women around the world, particularly in the Middle East, who are defending and protecting sites.”

Parcak has what sounds like perhaps the coolest job in existence. Not only is she an archaeologist, but she hunts for ancient sites from space, where they can be easily and quickly found. She is a pioneer in the use of satellite imaging to find, count, and protect treasures, like lost tombs, temples, and pyramids.

Among the space archaeologist’s recent discoveries — an Egyptian city buried for 3,000 years called Tanis, whose existence was only known through ancient writings.

“We probably wouldn’t have noticed it from the ground, even if we walked right over it,” the space archaeologist noted.

In a 2011 interview with the Bangor Daily News (she is a native of Bangor, Maine), the space archaeologist explained how, exactly, she’s able to find lost worlds from space. Sarah refers to the technology as a “space-based MRI or X-ray machine.” A satellite snaps pictures of the Earth in different parts of the light spectrum, invisible to the naked eye. These spectrums illuminate hidden features; if a pyramid or city is buried beneath the surface, the pictures will see changes in the geology around it.

Take Tanis, for instance. From 700 miles above the planet, a satellite was able to snap images that picked up the outlines of the ancient city’s mud brick structures. From that, the space archaeologist was able to create a map of the city’s houses, temples, and tombs.

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“We were able to create a map that looks like something you’d pull out and use today to find your way around a town. There’s a detailed network of streets and houses, and you can even see the class divisions. There’s a poor part of town with small houses and a wealthy neighborhood near the palace with big villas and shops and the best breeze.”

Ancient remains are everywhere, the space archaeologist said — massive cities far larger and more complex than anyone thought. All told, less than 1 percent of ancient Egypt has been unearthed. The technology will also help find and model buried Mayan ruins and hidden buildings in Central Asia’s Silk Road.

The space archaeologist said she can find 70 sites in the three weeks. In the field, it would take her three years.

And that efficiency and speed is important, since humanity’s collective past is being invaded and looted, and the treasures sold on the black market at an alarming rate all over the world. It’s not clear if the the space archaeologist’s TED prize will fund her efforts to combat the problem, but what is clear — this work is incredibly important. The problem is widespread.

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“You think looting is bad in Egypt, look at Peru,” the space archaeologist told the New York Times. “India, China. I’ve been told in China there are over a quarter-million archaeological sites, and most have been looted. This is a global problem of massive proportions and we don’t know the scale.”

The space archaeologist wants has launched a project to find and track looting at two sites near Cairo. Her images help alert law enforcement to watch out for plundered treasures. Eventually, the space archaeologist wants this pilot to expand to other spots in the world and let the archaeological community study the images and report other thefts — from space.

“It’s an enorous and incredibly ambitious idea—to make the entire world aware and engaged in the problem,” said archaeologist Thornton, her colleague at NatGeo. “But Sarah doesn’t think small; she only thinks in huge bright colors and big brush strokes.”

[Photo Via YouTube Screengrab]