Someone is spending $1 million to make you a space archaeologist

By Kathleen Ferraro

Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak wants us to follow the clues from space.

She delivered this message at the annual TED Conference in Vancouver, where she unveiled her plans for spending her $1 million 2016 TED Prize earnings.

Parcak said the money will launch Global Xplorer, an online platform that will use crowdsourcing and citizen scientists to analyze satellite images and detect unknown archaeological sites. The project aims to “crowdsource exploration,” building a network of citizen archaeologists who collectively accelerate the discovery and protection of ancient sites, according to Parcak.

“I wish for us to discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites across the globe,” Parcak said. “By building an online citizen science platform and training 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.”

Egyptologist Sarah Parcak. (Flickr)
Egyptologist Sarah Parcak. (Flickr)

Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has long used satellite images for a bird’s eye view to detect, survey, monitor and preserve a host of ancient Egyptian sites—lending her the title space archaeologist. In 2012, Parcak gave a TED talk introducing space archaeology to the public. The talk, with over 700,000 views, won her the 2016 TED Prize.

As a TED fellow and now a TED Prize winner, Parcak plans to take space archaeology to the next level, establishing a network of citizen archaeologists committed to exploring the unknown past, according to the Global Xplorer website. Global Xplorer currently boasts an informative website. It’s the actual user platform that Parcak plans to build or release.

Global Xplorer can take us on a worldwide search for archaeological sites from the comfort of a laptop at home. Archaeologists have not yet surveyed vast expanses of land, a painstaking and time-consuming process. To remedy this problem, Parcak decided to round up the ranks of citizen scientists, allowing people to analyze satellite images from their own devices for potential sites. They would  use their own devices, according to the platform’s website. No formal training is required.

A satellite image revealing the pattern of the ancient buried city of Tanis, Egypt. (NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center)
A satellite image revealing the pattern of the ancient buried city of Tanis, Egypt. (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)

Whether Global Xplorer will in fact revolutionize archaeology as Parcak envisions remains to be seen, however. Robert Hasenstab, anthropology professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, has his doubts.

“She claims that this will curb looting [at sites] since citizens will keep an eye on them. I’m not convinced that this will work for the intended purpose,” he said. “I fear it may ‘backfire’ and end up being a new tool for looters to find new sites. I think it all depends on whether citizen watchdogs outnumber the looters.”

Patrick Williams, archaeologist and associate curator at the Field Museum, expressed concerns with Global Xplorer despite the platform’s ability to bring attention to archaeological research.

“Unfortunately, [Global Xplorer] is not the whole solution. Getting people to realize this stuff is important, but once you hand that information over to the authorities, someone has to do something with that,” he said. “We won’t have the resources to use the information unlocked by these citizen scientists, and without those resources, their efforts will be pretty meaningless.”

Tim Earle, an anthropology professor at Northwestern University, reaffirmed the need to coordinate between citizen scientists and the experts.

“[Amateurs] need to be trained, they need to be used efficiently, but there’s nothing wrong with them,” he said. “It’s figuring how to get the engagement between the professionals who curate the materials and the amateurs who have this interest and enthusiasm.”

Nonetheless, Parcak remained positive.

“We witnessed the birth of the digital era, and have experienced first-hand the incredible things that can happen when access to data intersects with the power of the crowd,” Parcak said in a statement. “The responsibility for solving the world’s problems no longer falls firmly on the shoulders of experts, People across the globe can work together toward solutions.”

Photo at top: TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak speaking at the 2016 TED Conference in Vancouver. (Marla Aufmuth/TED/Creative Commons)