This "Space Archaeologist" Uses Satellites To Find Ancient Sites

Brilliance | Dec. 11, 2017

You have to be pretty cool to call yourself a space archaeologist, and Sarah Parcak fits the bill. Armed with a fleet of high-tech satellites, she has discovered lost cities from Egypt to Peru, and perhaps even more significantly, she's been able to track signs of looting.

Why we're covering this:

Eyes In The Sky

Dr. Parcak might invite Indiana Jones comparisons with her adventurous spirit and her stylish brown fedora—no, seriously—but there's one thing she's got that Indy never had: satellites. Using real-time photos from the orbiting cameras in conjunction with NASA's topographical findings and chemical analyses, the Egypt specialist has uncovered 17 possible pyramids and well over 3,000 lost settlements. For her newest project, she's moving to Peru and converting her satellites into crimefighters, spotting the holes dug by artifact thieves into priceless sites.

High-Tech Detective Work

One of Dr. Parcak's crowning achievements is the possible discovery of Itjtawy, Egypt's long-lost capital city circa 1991 BC. Though researchers have long known of the its existence, there has been very little to go on when it comes to actually locating the city, which was washed over as the Nile gradually shifted course. But Dr. Parcak is pretty sure she found the answer. First, she identified what was likely its general area near the pyramids of two kings known to have built Itjtawy. Then, she used NASA topographical projections to identify where the Nile had once flowed, and which areas it passed over as it shifted. Once she'd pinned down a likely piece of high ground, her team cored the earth and dug up a dense layer of pottery and jewelry shards—a sure sign of a thriving urban area that dated back 4,000 years.

Besides the array of satellites, Dr. Parcak has another secret ingredient: you. Anyone can sign up for an account on her website GlobalXplorer and review satellite images for signs of tampering. You don't have to be an archaeologist yourself, either—just take the tutorial and you'll be ready to lend a hand. So far, the program has recruited more than 40,000 volunteers, and covered more than 850 million square meters of land.

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