Space archaeologist wants citizen scientists to identify archaeological looting

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An archaeologist has launched a citizen science project that invites anyone with an Internet connection to help look for evidence of archaeological site looting.

The platform, called GlobalXplorer, presents users with satellite images of Earth's surface. "Looting is one of the most common ways archaeological sites around the world are destroyed," explains the archaeologist behind the project, Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"By marking satellites where you think you see looting, you're helping to protect sites and save our common cultural heritage."

Parcak is a space archaeologist, meaning she specializes in what satellite images can tell us about past civilizations. The GlobalXplorer project is funded with the $1 million TED Prize that Parcak won last year.

She explained early plans for the project to NPR's Ari Shapiro last year.

People who log on to the site are shown square satellite images of the Earth's surface — the current area they are crowdsourcing is in Peru — and are asked to decide whether there is or is not evidence of looting pits on the ground.

A portion of the site of the pre-Columbian Peruvian city of Chan Chan that shows evidence of heavy looting activity.
A portion of the site of the pre-Columbian Peruvian city of Chan Chan that shows evidence of heavy looting activity. Hasiba Haq/DigitalGlobe 2017

Looters find an area of interest and then dig numerous large holes or even bulldoze whole areas, the website explains. In so doing, looters in search of valuable artifacts destroy the context that helps archaeologists understand past cultures.

A training video explains how to tell man-made looting pits from other holes in the ground:

  1. Pits always appear in groups
  2. Pits generally have a round or rounded square shape
  3. Pits contrast with the landscape around them and sometimes cast a shadow, depending on the light in the image
  4. Pits are typically 2 to 5 meters in diameter

"Although it may seem like an easy distinction between a large deep hole in the ground and bush, you can actually sometimes be hard to tell them apart," the training video warns.

Parcak also reminds people who join the project that it's good to be skeptical.

"It's just as valuable to mark a tile as negative for looting as it is to identify potential looting because it helps us narrow the search," she explains. The project is set up such that dozens of people will typically look at each image, mitigating the effects of each layperson's impressions.

Peruvian archaeologist Luís Jaime Castillo is coordinating with the Peruvian government about potential findings from the project, should it turn up actionable evidence of archaeological looting in the country, according to National Geographic, which is supporting the project

"Most people don't get to make scientific contributions or discoveries in their everyday lives," Parcak told National Geographic. "But we're all born explorers, curious and intrinsically interested in other humans."

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