Archaeology from Space: Interview with Sarah Parcak

Archaeology from Space cover image

By Bilal Siddiq

A riveting exposure to the novel field of space archaeology, Sarah Parcak’s Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past (Henry Holt and Co., 2019) is the 2020 recipient of the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. The award recognizes superior books by scientists written to illuminate aspects of science for a broad readership. First offered in 1959, the award encourages literate and scholarly interpretations of the physical and biological sciences and mathematics. Past winners include scientific giants such as Edward O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould.

Having earned degrees at both Yale and Cambridge universities, Parcak currently serves as a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Pioneers in the field of space archaeology, she and her team are responsible for locating more than 1,000 hidden tombs, 3,000 forgotten settlements, around 17 pyramids, and, last but not least, the famed Egyptian city of Tanis, whose treasures rival those of King Tut.

Parcak is a National Geographic Society Archaeology Fellow and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. She also currently serves as the founding director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She authored the very first textbook utilized in the study of space archaeology, Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology (Routledge, 2009). A recipient of the Ted Award, she used her grant to establish GlobalXplorer, an initiative designed to utilize the action of the masses to aid in the discovery of new sites of archaeological relevance.

While space archaeology is new, it is evolving and growing rapidly. It has already helped to identify thousands of new sites and change long held assumptions. For example, Parcak relates how this fledgling approach has been used to determine the existence of more than 18,000 potential sites where people once dwelled in the Amazon basin, an area once largely considered to be incapable of habitation.

Parcak also addresses the importance of the field in our lives today. There are great lessons to be learned from the civilizations of the past. Perhaps they can help us determine what aspects of our being best define us, what parts of civilization are integral, and what it means to be human.

INTERVIEW

Why is the preservation of past monuments, structures, and civilizations vital to you as an individual?

PARCAK: I feel like the past has so many valuable lessons to teach us today—from faith, to climate change, to pandemics—previous civilization have been through so much. We have to preserve the past to be able to learn more about it. We have this mistaken assumption that humanity has evolved significantly in hundreds of thousands of years. We are still the same race that left Africa—we think we have “modern” problems, but access to good food, water and healthcare, family issues, finding a nice place to raise your kids, and dealing with bad leaders are all issues as old as we are. Studying archaeology allows us to contextualize all the bad and all the good and reframe how we deal with issues like climate change, migration, or societal collapse. There is no one solution to any of those challenges, and studying the past enriches our ability to handle them, and in some cases, solve them. Also, the ideas of resilience and creativity are as old as we are—archaeology can and should give us a lot more hope for where we might be headed.

Can you tell us a bit about GlobalXplorer and why is it important for people who are not archaeologists to be involved?

PARCAK: Globalxplorer or “GX” is a not for profit focused on using innovative technologies to empower the world to help map and protect its collective global heritage. The website we run, www.globaxplorer.org, is an online citizen science satellite archaeology platform that allows anyone in the world, ages 5-105, to look at satellite imagery and help us find sites. We started the platform in Peru and will continue to India and beyond. Our goal is to map the world in the next 10 years. Since 2017, 80,000+ GlobalXplorers from over 100 countries have examined 14 million satellite images, uncovered 29,000+ anthropogenic features, mapped 700+ previously unknown major archaeological sites in Peru, and created the conditions for our archaeological partner in Peru to discover a new set of Nasca lines. Over 700 of those 29,000 features are major sites

What has been your favorite archeological finding so far, and what made it especially important to you?

PARCAK: I’ll give the same answer I always give to this question: It’s whatever I’m working on next! I try not to dwell on previous work, because I’m focused on all the great things out there to discover.

In your book you write about how we can look to the past to learn for the future because history often repeats itself. Is there a moment in history that we can look back on to help us understand the present?

PARCAK: There are innumerable moments! Archaeology teaches us great humility. By putting together all the pieces on digs—from the tiniest seeds and charcoal and pottery and tiny objects to burials and the larger monumental finds we sometimes make—we begin to see patterns and trends on sites and across regions and even entire ancient cultures. We can begin to understand the ebbs and flows of how societies rise and collapse, deal with climate change, war, disease, corruption, trade, diplomacy . . . so many issues we think of as “modern” and yet are all many thousands of years old. We gain insights into our foibles and strengths, and we have a chance to learn from them, to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We obviously have a very long way to go, but if more people understood archaeology and history, we’d stop and think more about the huge decisions we are making every day, especially world leaders.

What does it mean to you and to your work to have Archaeology from Space selected for the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science?

PARCAK: It’s the most extraordinary honor. When one starts writing a book, the main hope is that you complete it, followed by a fervent desire that people outside your family and friends read it, and hopefully even enjoy it. To have my first popular science book win this enormously prestigious award, to be listed alongside the luminaries who have won it previously—it’s still unthinkable to me, even after the fact. I poured my heart and soul into my book, no more or less than any other author, and to have that effort rewarded in such a way has given me a major confidence boost for my next book, and frankly, my mission to share my passion for the past with the world. I’ll always be grateful, and I’ll work the rest of my career paying it forward with encouraging and supporting other scientists who want to write books for the general public.

Bilal Siddiq earned his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was inducted to Phi Beta Kappa in April 2020. Rhodes College is home to the Gamma of Tennessee chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.