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Innovator Revolutionizes Archaeology; New Product Makes Building Material from Trash

Aired August 10, 2013 - 14:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Today on "THE NEXT LIST," two women turning to the past to create a brighter future. In Guatemala, Mayan tradition inspires Susana Heisse's eco-brick. It's an unlikely building material that is transforming communities around the globe.

But first meet Sarah Parcak. She's been called a real life Indiana Jones. But this space age archaeologist says Raiders of the Lost Ark is old school. From her lab at the University of Alabama, Parcak uses infrared satellite imagery to uncover Egyptian ruins, pyramids, palaces, tombs, ancient cities once thought lost forever.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This completely invisible world comes to life when you process the satellite data. There's this whole other way to use geography and GPS and light, she absolutely turned me onto this entire field.

GUPTA: Today with Egypt on the brink of chaos and looters operating without fear, her work has become more important than ever.

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

GUPTA: I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and this is "THE NEXT LIST."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are innovators, game changers, people pushing themselves, moving us all forward. They are the next scientists, musicians, poets, the next makers, dreamers, teachers, and geniuses. They are THE NEXT LIST.

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

GREG MUMFORD, DEPARTMENT OF ANTHOPOLOGY: Sarah is probably in the forefront in Egyptology in this area.

PARCAK: We've only found one percent of archaeological remains. That means there's 99 percent of ancient Egypt left to find. And with satellite imagery what it helps us to do is zoom in and focus on a specific area, whether we're doing archaeological survey work or excavation work. For 400 miles in space we can zoom in and we can see things only a foot and a half wide. In a couple years the resolution will be under a foot. It will only get better and better. We can pinpoint exactly where to go and exactly where to dig.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was one of Sara's first students. I am a remote sensing analyst who works with Sarah Parcak on archaeological projects. I remember when we were first working on the first BBC documentary on Egypt, we were getting a lot of attention finding these very exciting structures and pyramids. I knew the science was good and everything. It seemed like it was almost too good to be true that we're finding a large amount of structures.

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

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

PARCAK: It inspired a lot of people and got them to think differently about the way archaeology is done. We found over 3,000 potential settlements all over Egypt. You can kind of make out some very large temples they've been working on. I'll tip that back a little bit so you can see it. That's a temple there.

GUPTA: That's unbelievable. I didn't know what to expect. That's a pretty good image.

PARCAK: This is a great image. What's really neat is down here this is where the people lived right in this huge section here. What we use infrared which helps to emphasize subtle differences between the mud brick walls the Egyptians built and differences in moisture with surrounding vegetation. When you visit and you walk over the surface it's a big brown salty mound. 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 to put in 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'll see what's underneath them. So it will be like an ultrasound. We'll be able to dive into the surface of the earth, which is really exciting.

HAYES: I look at an image like this with you and it's really remarkable. Just in a common humanity standpoint to think that we're all linked together. But what does this teach us?

PARCAK: There were generations of ruling families that lived here. How and why were they ruling Egypt? What were political intrigues going on, and what about the people? This was New York City of 3,000 years ago. And yet what do we know about the people? Almost nothing. What could this teach us about how to survive droughts and how to survive political intrigue? These people were dealing with the same things we deal with today. We're at a point now if we don't do something about it, it will be gone in 30 or 50 years.


PARCAK: You absolutely cannot judge an archaeological site but what remains. The majority of the research I do is archaeological research but to me as a professor at 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 said that's interesting. They study Egypt. I said that's interesting. They use remote sensing and I went, oh. Being in engineering, I said that's very interesting. She's been a real spark on this campus.

PARCAK: 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. Everyone always looks for their house first. 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 kinds of geology that may indicate an oil deposit or some kind of mineralogical deposit that can be mined.

I tell my student on day one, a picture is worth 1,000 words. A satellite image is worth $1 million. Satellite imagery is from space and allows us to get perspective we don't have otherwise. 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 you can use to answer questions about climate change, environmental change, population change, and social change.

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 on papers, and of course we're constantly talking to each other, because the nice thing about being able to pull back in space is you don't see borders and there's as more collaborative spirit.

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

PARCAK: I would like to think that we could, but, you know, in Egypt, for example, I have been able to find 3,000 previously unknown settlements up and down the Nile valley and delta. These are just sites on the surface. I'm limited right now by the technology, so as 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 going to increase.

More people are using the technology and realize how valuable it is to map our past. The turbulent political situation in the Middle East makes us have to be more focused on what we do.

GUPTA: How much of an impact in conflicts like that have on our ancient history?

PARCAK: Huge. Let me show you some images. The nice thing is I had imagery before, so I had the great pyramid. If you look in this area we'll get closer. This image is from 2009. I was actually here in 2010. It's fine. Nothing there, virtually untouched. There was no evidence for looting. However, February, 2011, there were about --

GUPTA: These are looting pits.

PARCAK: They represent different types of looting, young men looking for gold. No gold to be found. Some of the deeper holes, it is organized looting groups who are going in and they know exactly where the tombs are.

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

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 data base that all sorts of global heritage organizations and heritage organizations within countries can use, and 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 these things and use this new technology while we can and 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 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 how exciting it is for the future of the technology.

GUPTA: Still ahead, turning mountains of trash into building blocks, Susana Heisse and her eco-brick when we come back.


GUPTA: Welcome back to THE NEXT LIST. We visited the pyramids of Egypt, so now let's visit the ancient Mayan villages of Guatemala.

HEISSE: I live in this village for 15 years. And then came this word, trash.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Probably like a lot of visionary types, Susana was also regarded as a little bit crazy. She looks like this wild person. HEISSE: People said, Susana, you are crazy. You are totally crazy. You want to build with this? And in October 5th we had the first big hurricane here, and 25 houses were just wiped out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And then there was suddenly this huge need for rebuilding, and there were those plastic bottles filled with those little papers that the children had been stuffing and stuffing and stuffing.

GUPTA: Plastic bottles stuffed with trash, an building material.

HEISSE: It is trash and it's a container for trash.

GUPTA: When hurricane Stan decimated a town on the shores of Guatemala, victims and relief workers desperate to rebuild immediately saw their value.

HEISSE: The came and said we can't believe it. Do you need help?

GUPTA: That was 2005. And today you can find the so-called eco-brick on almost every continent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Projects are growing in El Salvador. I heard of a similar type building in Thailand.

GUPTA: It's all because of Susana Heisse, the creative force behind this deceptively simple innovation. A former fashion designer, she's unconventional by almost any standard.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If she wasn't doing trash, she would be Jean- Paul Gaultier.

GUPTA: Today her unorthodox use of trash is improving the lives of thousands around the globe.

HEISSE: This is an eco-brick. This is the container and this is where you stuff all of the wrappers, all of the plastic bags, everything that is inorganic trash. You just put the lid on top and then you have an eco-brick ready for construction.

I'm Susana Heisse. I'm the founder of the eco-brick movement. We are here in Guatemala in Central America, and this is called the most beautiful lake on earth.

JOYCE MAYNARD, AUTHOR, "LABOR DAY": They took a vast, blue body of water surrounded by three towering volcanoes.

CHRIS BARRY, FORMER PEACE CORP VOLUNTEER: There's three different Mayan groups around the lake. A lot of the main cultural elements are still maintained. Every town around the last has its own unique feel.

HEISSE: In the '60s this new material, plastic, came. That was totally new for them. Plastic is not a bad material. It helped them a lot. But nobody told them, look, this is not going to decompose. This is going to stay here for 20, 30, 50, 100, 500 years. BARRY: The trash problem is affecting these communities in several ways. Tourism is a big issue. Bacteria blows up in the lake. Tourists are no longer allowed to swim, and that region is very much dependent on tourism. Then you talk about drainage problems. These bags and wrappers and bottles get caught up in the drainage system and the water doesn't drain the way it's supposed to.

HEISSE: So there are two things happening. One is that the rain takes all of the trash and floods all of the trash down to the lake, which is only a little steps below us. And the other thing is that all of the bad liquids all go down to the ground, and they are contaminating their whole entire soil above and also the water which is beneath.

EDWIN ENRIQUE CUA SANCOY: The specific idea is to have everybody recycling and have a consciousness for cleanness.

HEISSE: This is the famous wall built out of 1,000 eco-bricks. And these eco-bricks have been stuffed by kindergarten children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is trash and a container for trash and, when it is filled with trash, it has sufficient integrity to be a building block.

LENNY LIMPUS SIPAC, TECHNICIAN: You use those as a basic building material and you also are able to clean up the community and teach about environmental education and importance of maintaining a clean environment around you, trash management, all that kind of good stuff.

HEISSE: This is chicken wire. It is stuffed with bottled and we leave that spot out so people can see directly, oh, this is eco- bricks. This is made out of plastic trash and some artist is famous for that now.

CYNTHIA HUNT, HEALTH, ENVIRONMENT, LITERACY IN THE HIMALAYAS: What Susana has showed us today, it does make me feel like, why I didn't think of that ages ago?


GUPTA: The simplicity of Susana's eco-brick is part of its genius. Cheap, easy to make, environmentally friendly, it's a common sense solution for almost any community. And with the help of charities like the Peace Corps and Hug It Forward, the word is spreading.

HUNT: What Susana has showed us today, it does make me feel like why didn't I think of that ages ago?

GERSON GUITZ, HUG IT FORWARD: We are building a two-classroom school. This school serves about 200 kids.

BARRY: The ultimate goal with bottle school is not to eliminate trash just by building the schools. That would be impossible. There's too much trash. The ultimate goal is raising awareness about the environment, about the importance of managing trash. The original idea was using just a basic post and beam structure with wood. One difference that Hug It Forward adopted is using founded cement with rebar.

HEENAL RAJANI, HUG IT FORWARD: Hug It Forward is a registered nonprofit based in the United States, and what we do is we empower communities to build bottle schools.

HUNT: We have been invited here by Hug It Forward because we have a real issue with plastic bottles in the himalayas. It's a damaging problem because cows are eating plastic and dying from it which is losing our only source of quality protein for the children.

GUITZ: As you can see, it takes about 6,000 bottles to finish construction and this is the last square that we're making right now and we tie all of the bottles. All have to be the same high. It's a little different. What we're doing is using a metal frame instead of wood. Also we are using beams. These are metal beams attached to columns. And then when you put the metal frame, you just bend this over here and so it makes it really tight.

HEISSE: They are really strong.

GUITZ: This is a very safe construction. We actually comply with different rules internationally and we have the support of different engineers and architects.

HUNT: We've only been here four days so far but we already built a couple of the bottled walls that you see behind us. One of the great things is the partner that's here with me is locally trained builder from the Himalayas, and we talk about what will work in the Himalayas and how we can change things. For instance, in Guatemala, the climate is totally different. We're a high altitude desert above 3,500 meters. So we have very cold winters and we're working with the technology people from Hug It Forward to make sure that we can use this as insulation and that our kids stay warm in our schools.

HEISSE: That's why it's very important taking the tradition you have, you know, and combine that with new ideas.

I was totally impressed to meet the people from India because they have a completely different conditions so it's a very important to develop the constructing system with bottles in every place differently.

BARRY: People are really catching onto the idea. Projects are growing in El Salvador, Guyana. I heard of a similar building in Thailand.

HEISSE: The idea is spreading from our land toward all Guatemala toward the whole world that everybody pitches in with new ideas to make it better to transform it, to adopt it to their situations, to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem anymore.

GUPTA: Susana Heisse and Sarah Parcak, two remarkable women using unconventional tools to protect the world's history and our natural heritage, and that is what earns them a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks so much for watching. We hope to see you back here next week.