Like a modern-day Indiana Jones, Sarah Parcak uses satellite images to locate lost ancient sites. The winner of the 2016 TED Prize, her wish will help protect the world’s cultural heritage.

Why you should listen

There may be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of undiscovered ancient sites across the globe. Sarah Parcak wants to locate them. A satellite archaeologist, Parcak analyzes infrared imagery collected from far above the Earth’s surface and identifies subtle changes that signal a manmade presence hidden from view. She aims to make invisible history visible once again — and to offer a new understanding of the past.

Parcak is inspired by her grandfather, an early pioneer of aerial photography. While studying Egyptology in college, she took a class on remote sensing and went on to develop a technique for processing satellite data to see sites of archaeological significance in Egypt. Her method allows for the discovery of new sites in a rapid and cost-effective way.

A professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Parcak founded the Laboratory for Global Observation and wrote the first textbook on satellite archaeology. She’s a TED Senior Fellow and a National Geographic Explorer, and she has appeared in the BBC and Discovery Channel documentaries Egypt’s Lost Cities and Rome’s Lost Empire.

Her latest work focuses on looting of ancient sites. By satellite-mapping Egypt and comparing sites over time, she’s noted a 1,000 percent increase in looting since 2009 at major ancient sites. It’s likely that millions of dollars worth of ancient artifacts are stolen each year. Parcak hopes that, through mapping, unknown sites can be protected to preserve our rich, vibrant history.

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What others say

“Her laptop brims with satellite images pitted with thousands of black dots, evidence of excavations across Egypt where looters have tunneled in search of mummies, jewelry and other valuables prized by collectors, advertised in auction catalogs and trafficked on eBay, a criminal global black market estimated in the billions of dollars.” — New York Times, November 9, 2015

Sarah Parcak’s TED talk

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