Sarah Parcak: How Can Satellite Images Unlock Secrets To Our Hidden Past?

TED2016 TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak speaks at TED2016.
TED2016 TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak speaks at TED2016.
Bret Hartman/Bret Hartman / TED

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Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode TED Radio Wow-er

There may be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of undiscovered ancient sites. Sarah Parcak wants to locate them — from space.

About Sarah Parcak

Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist, who uses satellite images to locate hidden ancient sites around the world, such as ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, and more. Since winning the 2016 TED Prize, she launched an online crowdsourcing archaeology platform called GlobalXPlorer.

Sarah is also an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she founded the Laboratory for Global Observation. She holds a BA from Yale University and an MA and PhD from Cambridge University.

Activity Guide - Printable PDF

Activity 1: What Will Survive?

Archaeologists know that organic stuff (things that are or used to be alive) is susceptible to decay. If you've ever seen or made a time capsule, this is why they need to be airtight and dry. Archaeologists don't find organic remains very often, because it generally undergoes significant decay within a fairly short time. At most sites, fragile artifacts and organic remains are lost, and we'll never know what stories they could have told. Inorganic remains survive better, although they too can rust, erode, or otherwise break down in unstable conditions. Only if a site is covered over and sealed quickly, as Pompeii was by volcanic ash, may both organic and inorganic remains survive.

Here's some definitions and examples: Organic (once living) remains survive well only if protected (by hot/dry, airless, waterlogged, and very cold or frozen environments, or if sealed in volcanic ash). Organic remains turn to dirt easily. Examples of organic remains include human and animal bones, plants, objects and features made of plants and animals (like food, paper, wood, leather). Inorganic (never living) remains survive well in relatively airless conditions, although they too can break down when exposed to the elements. Examples of inorganic remains include clay, stone, cement, plastic, glass, and metal.


How To Do It:

Source: Adapted from The Archaeological Institute of America

Activity 2: Backyard Photo Scavenger Hunt

Archaeology is all about documenting a site. Sarah Parcak is especially cool because she does this from space, using cameras and sensors on satellites. For this activity, the site is your backyard (or any area outside that your family is okay with you exploring). We're not going to photograph your site the way archaeologists do, but we are going to test our observation skills and get creative.


How To Do It:

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