TED2012

Sarah Parcak: Archeology from space

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In this short talk, TED Fellow Sarah Parcak introduces the field of "space archeology" -- using satellite images to search for clues to the lost sites of past civilizations.

- Satellite archaeologist + TED Prize winner
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. Full bio

When I was a child growing up in Maine,
00:15
one of my favorite things to do
00:18
was to look for sand dollars on the seashores of Maine,
00:20
because my parents told me it would bring me luck.
00:23
But you know, these shells, they're hard to find.
00:26
They're covered in sand. They're difficult to see.
00:29
However, overtime, I got used to looking for them.
00:31
I started seeing shapes
00:35
and patterns that helped me to collect them.
00:37
This grew into a passion for finding things,
00:40
a love for the past and archaeology.
00:44
And eventually when I started studying Egyptology,
00:46
I realized that seeing with my naked eyes alone wasn't enough.
00:50
Because all of the sudden in Egypt
00:54
my beach had grown from a tiny beach in Maine
00:57
to one eight hundred miles long
01:01
next to the Nile,
01:03
and my sand dollars had grown
01:05
to the size of cities.
01:06
This is really what brought me to using satellite imagery.
01:09
For trying to map the past, I knew that I had to see differently.
01:12
So I want to show you an example of how we see differently
01:16
using the infrared.
01:20
This is a site located in the eastern Egyptian delta
01:22
called Bendix.
01:25
And the site visibly appears brown,
01:26
but when we use the infrared
01:29
and we process it, all of the sudden, using false color,
01:31
the site appears as bright pink.
01:35
What you are seeing
01:37
are the actual chemical changes to the landscape
01:39
caused by the building materials and activities
01:42
of the ancient Egyptians.
01:45
What I want to share with you today
01:48
is how we've used satellite data
01:50
to find an ancient Egyptian city,
01:53
called Itjtawy,
01:56
missing for thousands of years.
01:57
Itjtawy was ancient Egypt's capital
01:59
for over four hundred years,
02:02
at a period of time called the Middle Kingdom
02:04
about four thousand years ago.
02:07
The site is located in the Faiyum of Egypt
02:08
and site is really important because in the Middle Kingdom
02:11
there was this great renaissance for ancient Egyptian art,
02:14
architecture and religion.
02:17
Egyptologists have always known the site of Itjtawy
02:19
was located somewhere near the pyramids
02:22
of the two kings who built it, indicated within the red circles here,
02:25
but somewhere within this massive flood plane.
02:29
This area is huge --
02:32
it's four miles by three miles in size.
02:33
The Nile used to flow right next to the city of Itjtawy,
02:36
and as it shifted and changed and moved over time to the east,
02:39
it covered over the city.
02:42
So, how do you find a buried city
02:44
in a vast landscape?
02:48
Finding it randomly would be the equivalent
02:50
of locating a needle in a haystack,
02:52
blindfolded wearing baseball mitts.
02:54
So what we did is we used NASA topography data
02:57
to map out the landscape, very subtle changes.
03:01
We started to be able to see where the Nile used to flow.
03:04
But you can see in more detail -- and even more interesting --
03:07
this very slight raised area
03:10
seen within the circle up here, which we thought could possibly be
03:13
the location of the city of Itjtawy.
03:15
So we collaborated with the Egyptian scientists
03:18
to do coring work, which you see here.
03:20
When I say coring, it's like ice coring, but instead of
03:23
layers of climate change you're looking for layers of human occupation.
03:26
And five meters down,
03:29
underneath a thick layer of mud,
03:31
we found a dense layer of pottery.
03:33
What this shows is that at this possible location
03:37
of Itjtawy, five meters down,
03:39
we have of layer of occupation for several hundred years
03:41
dating to the Middle Kingdom, dating to the exact period of time
03:44
we think Itjtawy is.
03:47
We also found work stone --
03:49
carnelian, quartz and agate that shows
03:52
that there was a jewelers workshop here.
03:54
These might not look like much,
03:56
but when you think about the most common stones
03:58
used in jewelry from the Middle Kingdom,
04:00
these are the stones that were used.
04:03
So, we have a dense layer of occupation
04:05
dating to the Middle Kingdom at this site.
04:08
We also have evidence of an elite jewelers workshop,
04:09
showing that whatever was there was a very important city.
04:13
No Itjtawy was here yet,
04:16
but we're going to be returning to the site
04:18
in the near future to map it out.
04:20
And even more importantly,
04:22
we have funding to train young Egyptians
04:24
in the use of satellite technology
04:27
so they can be the ones making great discoveries as well.
04:29
So I wanted to end with my favorite quote
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from the Middle Kingdom --
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it was probably written at the city of Itjtawy four thousand years ago.
04:37
"Sharing knowledge is the greatest of all callings.
04:41
There's nothing like it in the land."
04:45
So as it turns out, TED was not founded in 1984 AD.
04:47
(Laughter)
04:53
Making ideas actually started in 1984 BC
04:55
at a not-lost-for-long city, found from above.
05:00
It certainly puts finding seashells by the seashore in perspective.
05:04
Thank you very much.
05:08
(Applause)
05:10
Thank you.
05:11
(Applause)
05:13
Translated by Jenny Zurawell

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About the Speaker:

Sarah Parcak - Satellite archaeologist + TED Prize winner
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 wrote the first 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 forgotten settlements and 1,000 lost tombs. She's also made major 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 »

 

 

More profile about the speaker
Sarah Parcak | Speaker | TED.com