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Exploring Modern Methods of Archaeology

Aired May 27, 2012 - 14:00   ET



SARAH PARCAK, PROFESSOR OF ARCHAEOLOGY, EGYPTOLOGIST: The most exciting moment as an archaeologist happened when I was looking at the great archaeology site of Tannis, which of course we all know from "Indiana Jones."

We got satellite imagery of the city of Tannis, we processed it, and literally from thousands of miles away from my lab in Alabama, we were able to map the entire city. Using this technology is an enormous shortcut.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: She's been called a real-life "Indiana Jones," but archaeologist, Sarah Parcak, says the raiders of the lost ark, that's old school.


PARCAK: I'd take them on in a search for archaeological sites and I'd win.


GUPTA: Parcak uses infrared satellite imagery to uncover Egyptian ruins, pyramids, palaces, tombs, settlements thought gone forever.


PARCAK: This completely invisible world just comes to life when you're processing the satellite data.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's this whole other way to use geography and GPS and light and she absolutely turned me on to this entire field.


GUPTA: From her lab at the University of Alabama, Sarah analyzes images from space and pinpoints structures buried here on earth.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah is probably in the forefront in Egyptology in this area. (END VIDEO CLIP)

GUPTA: Worried about site leaders and damage, Sarah's right to teach more archaeologists about this new technology.


PARKETTE: We're really in a race against time.


GUPTA: Her revolutionary approach saves money, saves time and more important, the history of our planet. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Welcome to THE NEXT LIST.


PARCAK: We've only found 1 percent of the archaeological remains. That means there's 99 percent of ancient Egypt left to find. We know so much less about our past than we think.

My name is Sarah Parcak and I am a professor of archaeology. I'm an Egyptologist. I'm a remote sensing specialist and I'm a space archaeologist.

GUPTA: Space archaeologist, do you think there's an irony in there that you're going to get further away from the earth to actually learn more about it.

PARCAK: It is one of the great ironies of what I do and what archaeology is. You know, I can't tell you the number of times I've been walking over an archaeological site.

And you can't see anything on the ground and pull back hundreds of miles in space and all of a sudden you can see streets and roads and houses and even pyramids.

GUPTA: Underground?

PARCAK: Underground, yes. More people are using the technology in archaeology. I think they're realizing just how valuable it is to map our past if the face of war, archaeology site looting, satellites, and satellite imagery have become much more inexpensive. It used to be costs were prohibitive. Now you can buy a satellite image as few as a couple hundred of dollars.

GUPTA: What is the value? To the average person, what is the value of the work you do?

PARCAK: Well, you know, when you think about archaeology, archaeology is the only field that allows us to tell the story of 99 percent of our history prior to 3,000 B.C. and writing. We're in this incredible museum right now.

And actually when people think about something about the ancient Egyptians, they think it's a society that was obsessed with death, and that's not true.

It was a society obsessed with life. The past can tell us so much about common themes in humanity. There were mother-in-law jokes thousands of years ago.

GUPTA: That's really fascinating. How do you learn something so specific about a civilization thousands of years ago, they had mother- in-law jokes? How does that -- how do you put that all together?

PARCAK: Well, we study the material culture of the past. We study the objects. It's not just about finding a pyramid or a temple or even a city. We have to delve in. We look at the objects of daily lives. We translate texts.

We use these teeny, tiny objects to start to build a much more complete picture of what happened all those years ago. And with satellite imagery, what it helps us to do is zoom in and focus on a specific area, whether we're doing an archaeological survey or excavation work. You know in these times we have less money and certainly less time.

And the turbulent political situation in the Middle East makes us have to have much more focussed in what we do. It's amazing, from 400 miles in space, we can zoom in and see things only a foot and a half wide.

In a couple of years, the resolution will be under a foot. The resolution will only get better and better. Now we can pinpoint exactly where to go and exactly where to dig.

I think once you've been on TV, people see you differently and they really shouldn't. My students definitely paid attention in my classes more after I was on TV last fall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was getting worldwide media attention, and it was so exciting, but I couldn't help but still have this little doubt, you know, what if we're wrong? What if it's not all actually there?




PARCAK: You absolutely cannot judge an archaeological site by what remains. The majority of the research I do is archaeological research. But to me as a professor, the most important thing is to encourage and mentor students.

LINDA LUCAS, UAB PROVOST: I can remember when Sarah was recruited. I said, we're bringing somebody in archaeology, I thought, that's kind of interesting, you know? They study Egypt. And I went, that's interesting. They use remote sensing. I go, being in engineering, that's very interesting. So she's been a real spark on this campus.

PARCAK: When I'm teaching about this technology, I start with Google Earth, because that's something that everyone knows about. Google Earth is an incredible resource because from hundreds of miles in space, we can zoom in, and we can find things.

Whether, you know, everyone always looks for their house first, and then people go to the great pyramid of Giza. That is the tip of the iceberg with remote sensing.

Satellites record data in different parts of the light spectrum that we can't see. And it's that information that allows satellites to be so powerful in terms of looking at things like vegetation health, finding different types of geology that may, say, indicate, an oil deposit or some kind of mineralogical deposit that can be mined.

I tell my students on day one, a picture is worth a thousand words, a satellite image is worth a million dollars. Imagery is powerful. Imagery is provocative, satellite imagery much more so because it is from space and it allows us to get this perspective that we don't have to have otherwise.

And when you add on top of that the ability to see a little bit differently, all of a sudden you have an amazing scientific tool that you can use to answer all sorts of questions about climate change, environmental change, population change and social change.

This is exactly where the majority of the teaching takes place. I believe in really hands on project based learning for students. We need to have fairly fast processors, very high resolution, almost like gaming quality software and computer graphics to be able to see the imagery.

So we have a lot of standard imagery processing programs that students as well as researchers use to look at satellite imagery. So basically we get imagery online from NASA or you can -- which is free, which is a great price for students or you can order commercial satellite imagery for as little as a few hundred dollars online so the cost have really come down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was one of Sarah's very first students. My name is Nathan Ganabo and I'm a remote sensing analyst who works with Sarah Parcak on archaeology remote sensing projects.

I remember when we first -- we're working on the first BBC documentary in Egypt. We're getting a lot of attention finding these very exciting structures and pyramids. I know that the science was good and everything. It seemed like there's almost too good to be true that we're finding such a large amount of structures.

PARCAK: I think the program has been seen by 40 million or 50 million around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah Parcak could be close to her own extraordinary discovery.

PARCAK: Inspired a lot of people and got into things differently about the way archaeology is done. We found over 3,000 potential settlements all over Egypt. You kind of make out some very large temples they've been working on.

GUPTA: Wow, so that's what I'm seeing here.

PARCAK: Yes, that's all tipped up back -- so that's a temple.

GUPTA: That's unbelievable. I -- I didn't know what to expect, but that's -- I mean, that's a pretty image.

PARCAK: This is a great image. But what's really neat is down here. This was where the people of Tannis lived, right in this huge section here. And what we used the infrared, which helps to emphasize very subtle differences between the buried brick wall the Egyptians built out of mud brick and difference in moisture with the surrounding vegetation.

When you visit the site of Tannis and you walk over the surface, it's this big brown (inaudible) you can't see anything on the ground. But what you're seeing here is the outline of an entire city.

GUPTA: This reminds me it's better than medical terms like looking at an ultrasound of a baby.

PARCAK: As the technology gets better, we're not only going to be able to see these more clearly, but we're going to be able to see what's underneath them. So it is going to be like an ultrasound. We are going to literally be able to dive into the surface of the earth, which is really exciting.

Another really exciting example of where we use the satellite imagery is at a site that's about two hours off of Cairo, near Egypt's (inaudible). So we use satellite data. By processing it, you can see old villas that would have been occupied by the wealthy people that lived there. You can see a city street running through the town.

We're in the western desert of Egypt. The imagery had shown possible hot circles that dated to more than 7,000 years ago and you don't need to excavate them. They're there. That was really exciting because we got to see with our own eyes the imagery worth in identifying these features.

GUPTA: So I look at an image like this with you and it's really remarkable just in a common humanity standpoint to think the world are linked together, but what is this to each of us?

PARCAK: There were generations of ruling families that lived at Tannis. You know, how (inaudible) were they ruling Egypt? What were the political intrigues that were going? What about the people? I mean, this was the New York City of 3,000 years ago.

And what we know about the people, almost nothing. You know what? What could this teach us about, you know, how to survive droughts, how to survive political intrigue, these people are dealing with the same things that we deal with today.

I have to say the person that probably influenced me more than anyone else is my grandfather and I like to think he's with me, kind of seeing what I'm doing.




GUPTA: So are you with at home in a place like this?

PARCAK: Yes, this is a second home for me. You know, I've been in love with Egypt since I was a little girl. It's funny. My parents always wondered why a girl from Maine would love Egypt. You know, we had moose, not camels.

We had -- but I just developed a passion for it, from a very young age. Everyone has different talents and I'm good at pattern and shape recognition. Even when I was a little kid, I could go to a patch of clover and reach in and pick out the four-leaf clover, every single time.

GUPTA: You read a lot and probably saw some images, but when you got to college, it was reinforced?

PARCAK: I was very lucky at Yale, one of the resident fellows was a world-famous Egyptologist. I ended up able to work with him as his research student. So I took a course in hieroglyphs my first year and that changed my life.

In high school, I did a lot of political work. I assumed I would go on to college, study political science, get my law degree, and run for public office in Maine, but I had this love for Egypt and I will never forget, I was able to get on the bus to go to college, and I said to my parent, what if I end up becoming an Egyptologist?

And they said, don't worry, we'll support you no matter what. The person I think who's influenced me more than anything else is my grandfather. You know, he passed away about 14 years ago. He was a World War II hero. He was in the 101st Screaming Eagle Division.

He was one of the pioneers in using aero photography in forestry. So I grew up listening to him tell stories about how he would measure tree height and density. It was actually one of the early ardent environmentalists of our time.

Every now and then, he'd take us to his office and we'd actually get to look through his stereoscopic viewer. He was the reason I took my first remote sensing class. It was something I've always had a love for and took one course and then another and then another, and before I knew it, I was majoring in at this Egyptology.

I'll never forget landing in Egypt for the first time. We landed in the late morning and we just flew over the pyramids and that was a transformative experience, seeing them with my own eyes, and there was something about that that just shifted my perspective forever.

GUPTA: How many people around the world do what you do? PARCAK: There are about 20 to 30 people that are very involved. You see their names a lot on papers and of course, we're constantly talking to each other. The nice thing about being able to pull back in space is you don't see borders and there's a lot more of a collaborative spirit.

GUPTA: That's interesting. Is this a finite field? I mean, at some point will we discover all that's to be discovered?

PARCAK: Well, I would like to think that we could. But you know, in Egypt, for example, I've been able to find about 3,000 previously unknown settlements all up and down the Nile Valley and the Delta. These are just the sites on the surface.

I'm limited right now by the technology, so as the technology gets better and better, we're not only going to be able to see beneath the ground. We're also going to be able to zoom in and see smaller and smaller objects. So as the technology gets better, our capacity to do this is only going to increase.

Archaeology is only actually a very small part of what you can do with satellite imagery analysis. Things like predictive mapping for diseases. Things like disasters. You know, right now, we can kind of roughly predict the direction of a tornado.

Satellite imagery, you know, we cannot only map the exact area that a tornado has hit, but also map the extent of damage. The imagery is incredibly powerful for all these fields and many others.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not a whole lot of individuals use satellite remote sensing for public health purposes. My name is Laura Gasp and I'm a doctoral candidate. Sarah Parcak is on my doctoral committee.

I'm specifically interested in diseases of urbanization. By 2050, 70 percent of the world is going to be living in an urban center. One of three of those will be in slums. So they have, of course, the worst health conditions.

They don't have water, they don't have sanitation. And by using satellites, I can sit in an office here in Alabama and figure out a way, well, how do we get the best water to this refugee camp?

Where can we drill a well? Sarah's been an incredible mentor. I don't think there's been anyone like her that can do this type of thing.

PARCAK: Something that I think shocks a lot of students, and I'm not afraid to say this, you end up failing consistently for a very long period of time, but failure is a critical part of science.



(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) PARCAK: I never thought we would have ended up in Alabama. And you know, here we are, it's the end of April, it's 90 degrees, it's gorgeous. The trees are in full bloom. My garden's in. These are Alabama the special heirloom tomatoes. The south has a way of seeping into your soul. As we found out, Alabama's great for doing outdoor stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's nice just to get a break, come out, freshen your mind.

PARCAK: We met on my first excavation in Egypt, 12, 13 years ago. It's hard to believe it was that long. I certainly was not expecting to meet my future husband on my first excavation, and I call Greg my best archaeological find and he certainly is.

GREG MUMFORD, UAB DEPARTMENT OF ANTHROPOLOGY: We both love the same field, we love archaeology in general. We love Egypt and things like that. So for us, it was a natural fit. Sara's more high-tech with her satellite imagery and processing and stuff like that, but it's great, because archaeology needs a lot of public attention. There's a lot of looting going on out there in the world. So I think for both of us, it's a way to get the message out to people.

PARCAK: We're at a point now where if we don't do something about it, this stuff will be gone in 30 or 50 years. It's my mission. I mission is to, I guess, I mean, if I can do something to help protect the past, then that's what I want to do with my life.

GUPTA: When you watch what happened in the Arab countries last spring, how much of an impact can conflicts like that have on our ancient history?

PARCAK: Huge. Let me show you some images. The nice thing is, I had imagery of before. So I had the great pyramid of King Josar. If you look at this image, we'll get a little bit closer. This image is from 2009. I was actually there in 2010, fine, nothing there, virtually untouched so no evidence for looting. However, February 2011, there were about 200 --

GUPTA: Looting pits.

PARCAK: These are looting pits, and they represent different types of looting, people looking for gold. There's no gold there to be found, but what's really scary, in some of these deeper holes. It's organized looting groups, Mafioso type elements who are going and know exactly where the tombs are, they've been watching archaeologists for years.

And you know, this is our common humanity. It's hardly been excavated and now it's gone forever. So what this technology can do, it helps out pinpoint areas that are being affected by looting.

If you can figure out a technique to find an archaeological site that's simply not visible on the ground, then you've cracked the code. And I failed consistently for a very long period of time when I started doing this work just because I didn't know it would work. But failure is a critical part of science. It's actually enjoyable, because you're getting to test things and take risks. I now allow myself, depending on the level of failure, whether it's 10 minutes, an hour, or an evening, to be really ticked off.

And I'll go to the gym, I'll go for a run, I'll bake a delicious cake, and then the next day I'm back on track. I find baking and cooking to be very zen. You just kind of lose yourself in it.

If you get too distracted when you're cooking, you're going to make a mistake. I think cooking's really helped me to focus on compartmentalizing, which I think the most successful people in the world are really good at.

I have a crazy dream and I think it's going to be possible. My dream is to map every archaeological site in the world. Because if we can do that, then we have this massive global database that we, you know, that all sorts of global heritage organizations and heritage organizations within countries can use, and then they can use that information to protect what's there.

Right now, we're racing against the looters. It's up to us to make a difference, to make changes and to find three things and use this new technology while we can. And you know, the more people that know how to use the technology, the more students we train, the more we get the word out, then the more the science becomes relevant.

In some ways, it's just the tip, it's just the beginning. Because I think what I'm finding is just on the surface. Satellite imagery can't be used right now, at least with what I do to look deep underneath the ground.

So if there are 3,000 sites just on the surface, can you imagine what's under the ground? There are thousands of more sites. It just gives you a sense of scale and you realize just how little you know and just how exciting it is for the future of the technology.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST, CNN'S "THE NEXT LIST": Sarah Parcak is transforming the field of archaeology, using innovation that maps lost worlds and teach us about ancient civilizations, and that's what earns her a spot on "THE NEXT LIST."

For more on Sarah and other change agents, check us out online, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook. Also, join me on my live stream. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for joining us.