Sarah Parcak wins $1 million TED prize to unlock secrets of ancient civilizations

Space archaeologist reveals lost worlds
Space archaeologist reveals lost worlds

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Story highlights

  • Sarah Parcak is an Egyptologist and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham
  • The space archaeologist uses satellite imaging to locate lost settlements and pyramids
  • Also called "remote sensing," the satellite imagery can also be used to crackdown on looting

(CNN)An archaeologist who detects civilizations lost to the sands of time is the winner of the $1 million TED Prize for 2016.

Sarah Parcak, a National Geographic Fellow, has spent the last several years using satellites, initially designed for use by the military, to identify potential sub-surface remains.
    Think Indiana Jones with 21st century tech and you'll get the idea. But while her work sounds exciting, her groundbreaking studies using satellite imagery have never been more important.
    "(I) feel overwhelmed, honored, and excited -- and definitely the weight of responsibility for my field. TED is an incredible organization and this is a phenomenal opportunity to raise awareness about what is happening to our ancient shared heritage," says Parcak, who was informed of her win over Skype.
    Sarah Parcak, Egyptologist and anthropology professor
    The trailblazing archaeologist has spent the last several years working in the Middle East to not only uncover lost sites but also help monitor areas from looting and destruction. And this is how she hopes to use her prize money.
    "Archaeology is experiencing significant challenges right now due to ISIL (ISIS), economic crises, and drops in tourism. Looting and site destruction are global problems. We have a tough road ahead, and one key will be developing more collaborations using new technologies like satellite imagery," says Parcak, who is also an associate professor at the University of Alabama.
    "I am one of many people documenting damage and looting at ancient sites from space -- it is such a crucial tool."

    What is a space archaeologist?

    To us outsiders, being a "space archaeologist" sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie but it's very real and it's completely changing the way we look to the past.
    "When people initially think of the term 'space archaeologist' they think 'oh it's someone who uses satellites to look for alien settlements on Mars or in outer space' but the opposite is true -- we're actually looking for evidence of past human life on planet earth," she says.
    The high-resolution satellites, with infrared and thermal capabilities, sit in orbit almost 500 kilometers above the Earth and can precisely pinpoint objects on terra firm less than a meter in diameter. The infrared light used by the satellites has longer wavelengths than visible light and thus can penetrate the earth's surface.
    The space archaeologist takes the satellite images and processes them to identify subtle anomalies on the earth's surface.
    "All of these secrets are in the ground waiting for us to find them. The answers are there," says Parcak.
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    "The most exciting part of my job (is) the idea that by mapping out archaeological sites, by using new technologies and trying to think very differently about how we see landscapes, we have a better chance of understanding who we are and what we are doing here."
    Use of remote-sensing technology in search of ancient sites is revolutionizing the field of archeology. In 2011, Parcak and her team announced they located 17 pyramids in addition to 1,000 tombs and 3,100 ancient settlements in a documentary for the BBC. A
    A year later, Parcak was back in the field spending months trekking across the ancient Roman empire, traveling to Tunisia, Jordan, Romania and Italy, uncovering sites identified from space, finding an amphitheater and potential location for the famed Portus Lighthouse.
    "I keep being surprised by the amount of archaeological sites and features that are left to find all over the world," says Parcak.
    Having spent the last 17 years working in Egypt alongside her husband and fellow archaeologist Greg Mumford on various surveys and excavations, the country holds a special place in Parcak's heart.

    Protecting the past

    And after the Arab Spring movement spread across the Middle East, rumors started circulating of locals looting ancient sites.
    Now the Egyptologist is developing new techniques so she can work with governments and international organizations to try to prevent the situation from getting worse.
    "We've found that patterns of site looting have increased between 500 and 1000 percent since the start of the Arab Spring. Now this is a problem as old as human beings," she says.
    "People were looting tombs 5,000 years ago in Egypt as soon as people were buried but the problem is only getting worse and worse."
    In addition to her archaeological fieldwork, Parcak spends much of her time as an educator at UAB and lecturing around the world.
    "If you really want to be a good archaeologist, you have to understand ancient DNA, you have to understand chemical analysis to figure out the composition of ancient pots. You have to be able to study human remains. You need to be able to do computer processing and in some cases, computer programing.
    "It's not a bunch of old folks just digging in the dirt, which is fun, but there's this whole other world that we can study and the key is science so I try to speak to school groups, and I try to take a lot of time with young people after I present at conferences," she says.
    The Egyptologist isn't the only one using aerial technology to advance archeology
    In 2013, the U.S.-based National Academy of Sciences released a report where a consortium of archaeologists used airborne lasers to survey Cambodia's Angkor Wat.
    The team also announced the remarkable existence of a medieval city hidden beneath the dense jungle.