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. As a space archaeologist, she analyzes infrared imagery collected from far above the Earth’s surface and identifies subtle changes that signal a manmade presence hidden from view. A TED Senior Fellow and a National Geographic Explorer, she founded the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her goal: to make the world's invisible history visible once again.

Parcak was 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. She's written the textbook on satellite archaeology, which allows for the discovery of new sites in a rapid and cost-effective way. In Egypt, her techniques have helped locate 17 potential pyramids, in addition to 3,100 potential forgotten settlements and 1,000 potential lost tombs. She's also made discoveries in the Viking world and Roman Empire, and appeared in the BBC documentary Rome’s Lost Empire and the PBS Nova special, Vikings Unearthed.

Parcak's method also provides a way to see how ancient sites are being affected by looting and urban encroachment. By satellite-mapping Egypt and comparing sites over time, she’s noted a 1,000 percent increase in looting since 2009 at major sites. It’s likely that millions of dollars worth of artifacts are stolen each year. Parcak hopes that, through mapping, unknown sites can be protected to preserve our rich, vibrant history.

As the winner of the 2016 TED Prize, Sarah is building a citizen science platform, called GlobalXplorer, which will enable anyone with an internet connection to discover the next unknown tomb or potential looting pit. GlobalXplorer will launch in early 2017. Sign up for email updates and get early access »

 

 

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

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