Sarah Parcak
972,213 views • 21:48

As an archaeologist, I'm most often asked what my favorite discovery is. The answer's easy: my husband, Greg.

(Laughter)

We met in Egypt on my first dig. It was my first lesson in finding unexpected, wonderful things. This began an incredible archaeological partnership. Years later, I proposed to him in front of our favorite pair statue of the Prince and Princess Rahotep and Nofret, in the Cairo Museum, dating to 4,600 years ago.

I thought if I was going to ask Greg to spend the rest of this life with me, then I should ask him in front of two people who had pledged to be together for eternity. These symbols endure because when we look at them, we're looking at mirrors. They are powerful reminders that our common humanity has not changed.

The thrill of archaeological discovery is as powerful as love, because ancient history is the most seductive mistress imaginable. Many archaeologists have devoted their lives to unraveling the mysteries of the past under hot suns and Arctic winds and in dense rainforests. Many seek. Some discover. All worship at the temple of possibility that one discovery might change history.

On my first day in Egypt, I worked at a site in the Northeast Egyptian Delta called Mendes, dating to 4,200 years ago, in a cemetery. That's a picture of me — I'm just in my bliss. On the dig, surrounded by emerald green rice paddies, I discovered an intact pot. Flipping it over, I discovered a human thumbprint left by whoever made the vessel. For a moment, time stood still. I didn't know where I was. It was because at that moment I realized, when we dig, we're digging for people, not things.

Never are we so present as when we are in the midst of the great past. I can't tell you how many times I've stood in front of the Pyramids of Giza, and they leave me speechless. I feel like the luckiest person in the world. They're a monument to our human brilliance and everything that is possible. Many cannot process their brilliance as human — they think aliens built them. But this is ridiculous. All you need to do is get up close and personal, and see the hidden hand of man in the chisel marks left by the tools that built them. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built one stone at a time with 2.3 million blocks, with incredible bureaucratic efficiency. It is not the pyramids that stand the test of time; it is human ingenuity. That is our shared human brilliance. History may be cyclical, but we are singular.

I love what I do, because I learn that we haven't changed. I get to read about mother-in-law jokes from Mesopotamia from 3,500 years ago.

(Laughter)

I get to hear about neighbors cursing each other from 4,600 years ago in Egypt. And my absolute favorite, from 3,300 years ago in Luxor: an inscription that describes schoolboys who cut class to go drinking.

(Laughter)

Kids these days.

(Laughter)

I get to see the most incredible architecture, see stunning sculptures — I mean, this is basically a selfie in stone — and see that we've always rocked serious bling. And also, we've been posting on walls and obsessing about cats —

(Laughter)

for thousands of years.

(Laughter)

(Applause)

Archaeologists are the cultural memory preservers and the spokespeople for the billions of people and the thousands of cultures that came before us.

Good science, imagination and a leap of faith are the trifecta we use to raise the dead. In the last year, archaeologists have made incredible discoveries, including: new human ancestors from South Africa; tools from 3.3 million years ago — these are the oldest tools ever discovered — in Kenya. And this, from a series of medical implements found from Blackbeard's ship from 1718. What you're looking at is a medical tool used to treat syphilis. Ouch!

(Laughter)

For each of these, there are thousands of other incredibly important discoveries made by my colleagues, that do not make headlines. However, I believe that the most important thing we do as archaeologists is acknowledge that past people existed and lived lives worth learning about. Can you even imagine what the world would be like today if we acknowledged all human beings in this way?

So, on a dig, we have a challenge: it often looks like this. You can't see anything. Where are we going to start digging? This is from a site south of Cairo. Let's have a look from space. Again, you can't really see much. What you're looking at is a WorldView-3 satellite image, which has a .3 meter resolution. That's 10 inches. This means that you can zoom in from 400 miles in space and see your tablets. How do I know about this? It's because I'm a space archaeologist. Let me repeat that. I am a space archaeologist. This means —

(Applause)

Thank you.

This means I use satellite images and process them using algorithms, and look at subtle differences in the light spectrum that indicate buried things under the ground that I get to go excavate and survey. By the way — NASA has a Space Archaeology program, so it's a real job.

(Laughter)

So, let's have a look again. We're back at the site just south of Cairo. You can't see anything. Keep your eye on the red rectangle. When we process the image using algorithms — think like a space-based CAT scan — this is what you see. This rectilinear form is an ancient tomb that is previously unknown and unexcavated, and you all are the first people to see it in thousands of years.

(Applause)

I believe we have barely scratched the surface in terms of what's left to discover. In the Egyptian Delta alone, we've excavated less than one-1000th of one percent of the total volume of Egyptian sites. When you add to that the thousands of other sites my team and I have discovered, what we thought we knew pales in comparison to what we have left to discover. When you look at the incredible work that my colleagues are doing all around the world and what they're finding, I believe that there are millions of undiscovered archaeological sites left to find. Discovering them will do nothing less than unlock the full potential of our existence.

But we have a challenge. Over the last year, we've seen horrible headlines of incredible destruction going on to archaeological sites, and massive looting by people like ISIL. ISIL has destroyed temples at Palmyra. Who blows up a temple? They've destroyed the Tomb of Jonah. And we've seen looting at sites so rampant, it looks like craters of the moon. Knowing ISIL's desire to destroy modern human lives, it's a natural extension for them to destroy cultural identity as well. Countless invading armies have done the same throughout history.

We know that ISIL is profiting from the looting of sites, but we don't know the scale. This means that any object purchased on the market today from the Middle East could potentially be funding terrorism. When a site is looted, it's as if a puzzle already missing 90 percent of it pieces has had the rest obscured beyond recognition. This is ancient identity theft writ large. We know that there are two kinds of looting going on: looting by criminal elements like ISIL, and then more local looting by those that are desperate for money. We would all do the same to feed our families; I don't blame the local looters. I blame the middlemen, the unethical traffickers and an international art market that exploits often ambiguous or even completely nonexistent laws.

We know looting is going on on a global scale and it's increasing, but presently we don't have any tools to stop it. This is beginning to change. My team and I have just completed a study looking at looting in Egypt. We looked at open-source data and mapped the entirety of looting across Egypt from 2002 to 2013. We found evidence of looting and site destruction at 267 sites, and mapped over 200,000 looting pits. It's astonishing. And putting that data together — you can see the looting pits marked here. At one site, the looting got bad from 2009, 2011, 2012 — hundreds and hundreds of pits.

Putting all the data together, what we found is that, contrary to popular opinion, looting did not start to get worse in Egypt in 2011 after the Arab Spring, but in 2009, after the global recession. Thus, we've shown with big data that looting is fundamentally an economic issue. If we do nothing to stop the problem, all of Egypt's sites will be affected by looting by 2040. Thus, we are at a tipping point. We are the generation with all the tools and all the technologies to stop looting, but we're not working fast enough.

Sometimes an archaeological site can surprise you with its resilience. I am just back from the field, where I co-led a joint mission with Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities at a site called Lisht. This site dates to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt between 2,000 and 1,750 BC. The Middle Kingdom was Ancient Egypt's Renaissance period. After a time of intense internal strife and environmental challenges, Egypt rebounded with an incredible resurgence of art, architecture and literature. It's a favorite period of time to study in Egypt, because it teaches us so much about how we can survive and thrive after great disasters.

Now at this site, we had already mapped countless looting pits. Lisht is a royal site; there would have been thousands of people buried there who lived and worked at the court of Pharaoh. You can see this before and after; you see dozens of looting pits. North Lisht. This is in South Lisht, before and after. When we first visited the site, we could see the tombs of many high-ranking officials that had been looted. Let me put into perspective for you what was taken. Imagine a two meter by two meter area full of coffins, jewelry and incredible statuary. Multiply that times over a thousand. That's what was taken.

So, when we started work, my Egyptian co-director, Mohamed Youssef, approached me and said, "We must work at this one particular tomb. It's been attacked by looters. If we don't do anything, they'll be back." Of course I agreed, but I didn't think we'd find anything. I thought the looters had stolen everything. What we started to find were the most incredible reliefs. Look at this painting — it's just stunning. We started finding engraved inscriptions. And even the titles of the tomb owner — he had titles like, "Overseer of the Army," "Overseer of the Treasury." I began to have hope. Maybe, just maybe we would find his name. For the ancient Egyptians, having their name last for eternity was their goal. And then one day, this appeared. This is the name of the tomb owner: Intef. You can see it written out here, in hieroglyphs. Working together with my Egyptian team, we had restored someone's name from 3,900 years ago.

(Applause)

Working together with my Egyptian colleagues, we celebrated this moment of shared discovery. What we were doing together was right and true. We found this incredible false door, mostly intact. On it we read about Intef and his inscriptions. You can actually even see him seated here. What I realized is that everything I had assumed about looted sites had been proven wrong.

Every day on site we worked together with 70 Egyptians as colleagues and friends. In the face of so much hatred and ignorance against those in the Middle East, every moment on site felt like a protest for peace. When you work with those that don't look like you, or think like you, or speak like you, your shared mission of archaeological discovery erases all superficial differences. What I learned this season is that archaeology isn't about what you find. It's about what you can prove possible.

Sometimes when you travel, you end up finding long-lost family — not those with whom you share genes, but a shared entry in the book of life. This is Omer Farrouk, my brother. Omer's a Gufti from a village just North of Luxor, called Guft. Guftis are part of a celebrated tradition in Egyptology. They help with digging and work crew organization. Omer is my COO and CFO. I simply couldn't do work without him. One day many years ago, when I was a young graduate student and Omer was a young Gufti who couldn't speak much English, we learned, completely randomly, that we were born in the same year, the same month and the same day, six hours apart. Twins.

(Laughter)

Separated by an ocean, but forever connected for Ancient Egypt is our mother. I knew then we'd always work together — not in my brain, but in the part of your soul that knows not everything can be explained.

(Arabic) Omer by brother, I will always love you.

(English) Omer my brother, I will always love you.

So, just before my first dig in Egypt, my mentor, the very famous Egyptologist Professor William Kelly Simpson, called me into his office. He handed me a check for $2,000, and said, "This is to cover your expenses. Have a glorious adventure this summer. Someday you will do this for someone else." Thus, my TED Prize wish is partial payback, plus interest —

(Laughter)

for a great human being's generosity and kindness.

So, my wish. I wish for us to discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites around the world. By creating a 21st-century army of global explorers, we'll find and protect the world's hidden heritage, which contains clues to humankind's collective resilience and creativity.

(Applause)

Thank you.

(Applause)

So how are we going to do this? We are going to build with the TED Prize money an online, crowdsource, citizen science platform to allow anyone in the world to engage with discovering archaeological sites. There are only a couple hundred of us space archaeologists around the world. It is my dream to engage the world with helping to find sites and protect them. What you'll do is sign in, create a username — note that this particular username is already taken.

(Laughter)

You'll take a tutorial and you'll start work. I want to note at the outset that in no way will be sharing GPS data or mapping data for sites. We want to treat them like human patient data, and not reveal their locations. You'll then be dealt a card from a deck — 20 x 20 meters or 30 x 30 meters, and you'll be looking for features. My team and I will have batch-processed large amounts of satellite data using algorithms in order for you to find things, so you'll be doing really good science.

You'll then be starting to look. What do you see? Do you see a temple? Do you see a tomb? Do you see a pyramid? Do you see any potential site damage or site looting? You'll then begin to mark what's there. And off to the side are always going to be rich examples of exactly what you're seeing, to help guide you. All the data that you help us collect will be shared with vetted authorities, and will help create a new global alarm system to help protect sites. But it's not just going to stop there. All the archaeologists with whom we share your discoveries will take you with them as they begin to excavate them, by using Periscope, Google Plus and social media.

A hundred years ago, archaeology was for the rich. Fifty years ago, it was for men. Now it's primarily for academics. Our goal is to democratize the process of archaeological discovery, and allow anyone to participate. Ninety-four years ago, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tut. Who is the next Howard Carter? It might be you.

By creating this platform, we will find the millions of places occupied by the billions of people that came before us. If we want to answer the big questions about who we are and where we've come from, the answers to those questions do not lie in pyramids or palaces, but in the cities and villages of those that came before us. If we want to learn about the past, it's time we inverted the pyramids. Acknowledging that the past is worth saving means so much more. It means that we're worth saving, too. And the greatest story ever told is the story of our shared human journey. But the only way we're going to be able to write it is if we do it together. Come with me.

Thank you.

(Applause)