‘Space archeologist’ uses satellites to peer into the past

Sarah Parcak

By Sarah Parcak

Editor’s note: Sarah Parcak has been dubbed the “real-life Indiana Jones,” but she prefers to be called a “space archaeologist.” From her lab at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Parcak analyzes infrared satellite imagery to map lost cities thought gone forever.

(CNN) – As children, everyone dreams of finding a long-lost city, or countless archaeological treasures much like the ones discovered by Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Some of us never outgrow that desire to seek out and explore ancient ruins. And, as it turns out, much of the ancient world remains unexplored and undiscovered.

I am a “space archaeologist,” a new subfield of archaeology where satellite imagery is used to map and locate ancient archaeological sites and features across the globe. Satellite imagery is helpful because it allows us to see beyond the visible light spectrum, and thus see features partially buried by modern vegetation or soil. From thousands of miles away in our university labs, we can map these features and then use the precise data in the field in time- and cost-efficient ways.

The most important thing is to survey or excavate the features to confirm they are actually there.

Ultimately, this is not about finding new sites, tombs or pyramids (although that is certainly a cool part of my job). What is important is using the new information to answer bigger questions about our past. For example, how did people in the past react to wide-scale changes in climate? We can examine settlement pattern changes over time in relationship to climactic data to examine ancient human-environment interactions. This is where we learn that people thousands of years ago dealt with similar issues as the people of today.

Nothing changes about human nature. The people of antiquity did not have iPads, electric cars or the Internet, but they did have issues with mother-in-laws, being hung over, and with corrupt politicians. This also makes it crucial to use the most advanced science possible to map our past before it is gone forever. Satellites are an essential part of mapping and understanding our past, and to help us to realize that the real treasure of antiquity is not gold, but the information that helps us to understand the past better, and hence, ourselves.

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