Sarah Parcak calls herself a “space archaeologist,” while others compare her to Indiana Jones, the fictional archaeologist portrayed in film by actor Harrison Ford.
However you describe her, this University of Alabama at Birmingham Egyptologist is using a $1 million prize to help the next generation of explorers find lost cities with satellites and a mobile phone app.
Since earning her doctorate in 2005, Parcak has discovered sites around the globe with stunning accuracy using imagery from NASA and commercial satellites. In Egypt, for example, she has helped find more than 3,100 archaeological settlements, thousands of tombs and — get this — 17 undiscovered pyramids.
Now this pioneer in the young field of satellite archaeology is looking to get everyone involved. With a $1 million prize from TED, a nonprofit innovation forum, she’s developing an app to crowdsource finding lost cities.
Here’s how the app will work: People will use their mobile phones to scan satellite images for telltale signs of human settlement: rectangular forms and changes to vegetation. When people find a site that looks promising to Parcak’s team, she will send archaeologists to the location, but only if the archaeologists promise to “bring” app users to the site with a video connection through virtual platforms such as Skype, Snapchat or Periscope. The app is expected by the end of 2016.
Parcak and her team used satellite imagery to find a potential early Viking settlement in Canada, hundreds of miles south of the only confirmed Viking site in North America. Constructed 500 years before the voyages of Christopher Columbus, this new site could rewrite history.
“Everyone always thinks of discovering new archaeological sites as a slow, often fruitless process,” said Parcak, who is originally from Bangor, Maine. But when anyone can spot an unknown tomb, “it’s an exciting time to be an archaeologist.”
Check it out yourself. Take a look at the pictures before and after Parcak processed the image, applying a filter to see shortwave infrared light normally invisible to humans.