The Unlikely Origins Of A Space Archaeologist

In this excerpt from “Archaeology from Space,” Sarah Parcak recounts who inspired her to become a space archaeologist, from her grandfather to Indiana Jones.

The following is an excerpt of Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah Parcak. Listen to her interview on space archaeology here.

In Egypt and the Middle East, exploring ruins in Central and South America, mapping sites across Europe, and even digging for the occasional Viking. You might say I am obsessed with the dirt beneath my feet and all the wonders that might be there; it doesn’t necessarily glitter, but it is priceless. That dirt contains nothing less than the clues to who we are, how we got here, and how we might thrive in the future.

Most of us can look back at our lives and identify pivotal moments that influenced our journey to where we are in our career: an unexpected event, maybe, meeting a key individual, an epiphany of some kind. Something. In my case I can identify one influence rooted in fiction and another solidly founded in facts.

the cover for the book archeology from space by sarah parcak

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Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past


Pizza, Videos, And My Path To Becoming An Archaeologist

If you are a child of the 1980s like me, your Friday night routine might have included getting pizza and picking up a VHS cassette from your local movie rental place. Wow, even writing that makes me feel old. After school, my mom would take my brother, Aaron, and me up the street to a creaky old house that had been repurposed to hold thousands of tapes, categorized by theme and age appropriateness.

Much to the chagrin of my mom, we invariably chose one of three movies: The Princess Bride, The Never Ending Story, or Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Now that I have a child of my own, who wants nothing more than to watch Minions on repeat, I appreciate my mom’s purgatory. She laughs at me.)

If we chose Raiders, I would sit, rapt, memorizing every scene, every bit of dialogue, every gesture. I can’t tell you if it was Egypt, the sheer adventure, or just Harrison Ford, but that movie called out to me.

At that age, I didn’t know that no one-size-fits-all fedora exists for archaeologists. We specialize in diverse subfields: aside from a particular time period or regional focus, an archaeologist might study pottery, art, bones, ancient architecture, dating techniques, or even recording and illustration.

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Searching For The Secrets Of Ancient Cultures—From Space

I’m part of a relatively new specialism called space archaeology. I am not making that term up. It means I analyze different satellite data sets—Google Earth is one you’re probably familiar with—to find and map otherwise hidden archaeological sites and features. It’s a pretty cool job, but wasn’t an obvious career option when I started taking undergraduate archaeology classes.

Why I do what I do all goes back to my grandfather, Harold Young, who was a professor of forestry at the University of Maine. Every weekend when I was young, while my parents worked late nights at the family restaurant, Aaron and I went to my grandparents’ house on a hilly, tree-lined street in Orono, Maine. Gram and Grampy had retired, my grandfather from the university and my grandmother from her post there as secretary of the faculty Senate.

Gram ruled the Young household, and the Senate, with an iron fist, so much so that Grampy always gave the same response when we asked if we could go outside to play.

“I’m only a captain,” he’d say, smiling. “You’ll need to ask the general!” and he’d turn to Gram and give a sharp salute. It ticked her off something awful and sent us into fits of giggles.

Grampy And My Journey Into Space

Grampy was in fact a captain, having served as a paratrooper during World War II. Part of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, known as the Screaming Eagles, he had led a platoon and jumped the day before D-Day. He also led one of only six bayonet charges in the war, receiving a Bronze Star with an oak leaf cluster and a Purple Heart. To plot his landing positions and map where to coordinate his troops, he analyzed aerial photographs, cutting-edge technology at the time. He took that technology with him when he completed his PhD in forestry at Duke University, developing new techniques to map tree heights using aerial photos. For nearly 30 years, Grampy taught generations of foresters how to use such photographs in their research and became a world-renowned forester.

I was only told about Grampy’s careers in snippets over time. He sometimes disappeared, traveling to far-flung places for international conferences, bringing us back carved wooden elephants from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). I later learned he donated his entire forestry library to institutions there. When I was little, I didn’t understand what it meant to be a decorated war hero or a brilliant scientist. I just knew him as the kind and gentle grandfather who drove Aaron and me up to the campus to visit the cows in the research barn, where we would get freshly made chocolate milk if we were well-behaved, which was rare. To this day I still think chocolate milk comes from chocolate cows.

Most of all, I remember how he’d let us look through his stereoscope, like a set of desktop binoculars, under which you put two slightly overlapping aerial photographs. The effect is wonderful—the photos jump out in 3-D. It’s not something you forget, if you’re young and impressionable, and it mapped out the first steps on my path.

Like so many in the Greatest Generation, Grampy never spoke about his war service. I did try to interview him for a high school project, but those days, thank God, were behind him. The forest was safe, and full of trees to map and identify, and that’s where he took us, without fail. Grampy ran three miles every day, and still had the strength to walk around the neighborhood the day before he died from cancer.

When I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark as a child, if you had told me that I would spend my career becoming a space archaeologist, I would not have believed you. And there’s no way that I would have believed I’d ever meet the man himself, Harrison “Indiana Jones” Ford, complete with that hat.

Three years after we lost him, as I gradually learned more about his research, I increasingly regretted never discussing it with him. By then, his research papers were available online, and my curiosity about his work had deepened to the extent that I took an introductory class on remote sensing in my senior year in college. Grampy had never gotten into satellite imagery—it came into use in forestry about 15 years after he retired—but I wondered just how different it could be from his aerial photography. Besides, most archaeologists had probably already included the technology in their research, especially in Egypt. Right? Everything had likely been mapped. Oh, naivety!

I started to get a clue when I tried to find papers for my final project, using satellites to detect water sources near archaeological sites in Sinai, Egypt. You know you’ve hit a dead end when the handful of sources cite each other. That one class led to a master of philosophy thesis, which led to a PhD, and now nearly two decades of research. I have my grandfather to thank for my career.

The Hat, My Past, And The Future

As an archaeologist, I felt this connection to my grandfather made a lot of sense. Your quirks, the way you look, your likes and dislikes, are only the surface of the archaeological site of You. Our ancestors are the underlying layers of earth, enhancing our lives in ways we may not even comprehend. So much is buried deep within your DNA, and in the DNA of the landscapes where humans live today and lived thousands of years ago. We just need some perspective to pull back and see the clues and connections between us and within us.

With that perspective firmly supporting us, our dreams can take us anywhere. When I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark as a child, if you had told me that I would spend my career becoming a space archaeologist, I would not have believed you. And there’s no way that I would have believed I’d ever meet the man himself, Harrison “Indiana Jones” Ford, complete with that hat.

It happened in 2016, when I gave a TED talk in Vancouver in which I described my work as a space archaeologist and my dreams for its potential. By this time I was an archaeologist, just like Indy. I heard a rumor that Harrison Ford might attend the talk, but I was told not to get my hopes up. Well, my luck held, and he came to the conference. My dear friend Tom Rielly, founder of the TED Fellows program, helped organize a luncheon for Harrison to which I was invited. I don’t think I slept a wink the night before.

As he approached, my heart raced. He looks exactly like he does on camera—the same craggy, rapscallion handsomeness. While we shook hands, he said all sorts of very nice things about my talk the day before. There was one thing I just had to get out in the open.

“Indiana Jones helped inspire me to go into archaeology,” I told him, “and inspired so many in my field. From all of us, thank you.”

“You do realize that I was just a character, right? You know more lines from that movie than I do.”

“Of course it was a movie, but it was your spirit that made Indy come to life. That was an inspiration from the start. And that’s why I’m thanking you, from the bottom of my heart.”

Maybe he’s just a very good actor, but I genuinely do not think he understood the impact he’d had on recent generations of our field until that moment.

Lunch with him and my husband was amazing. Harrison humored my overexcited archaeo-babble; he’s more into wildlife conservation activism than heritage, but he is a very gracious and kind human being, with one hell of a rakish grin. I will always be grateful for his bemused listening.

After lunch, we went outside for photographs, and I produced a brown fedora. Harrison looked at me and shook his head.

“I can’t believe you brought the hat.” 

“I couldn’t resist,” I said. He laughed.

“Since you’re the real deal, you get away with it.”

Yes, there is a photo of us fighting over that thing, and I will treasure it forever.

The Scope Of Space Archaeology

The human story—the story of us—is evolving at breakneck speed thanks to new technologies. Armed with new data sets, we can spin fresh tales that bring us closer to getting more right than wrong about our ancestors and ourselves.

What we can find with new technologies such as satellite imagery is simply astounding. It is helping us rewrite history. We’ve gone from mapping a few dozen ancient sites in one summer-long archaeological season to mapping hundreds, if not thousands, of sites in weeks. With advances in computing and artificial intelligence, we are on the verge of achieving those same results in a few hours.

In case you want to be an archaeologist and are worried that we space archaeologists will find everything first, fear not. Knowing the location of an ancient site is only the first step. We still have to survey sites on the ground, a process known as ground-truthing, and then undertake years of excavation to get a better understanding of what is there. And wow, do we have a lot of work to do.

To give you a sense of just how much, and how quickly this field is advancing, I saved writing this introduction until last, to make sure to include any hot-off-the-press discoveries made with satellite technologies. With the chapters done and edited, I thought I could get away with a bit of downtime between big announcements. Dream on, Parcak.

In a recent Nature publication, a team led by archaeologist Jonas Gregorio de Souza announced 81 previously unknown pre-Columbian sites in the Amazon basin area of Brazil, using satellite imagery and ground surveys. Based on their findings, they estimated 1,300 other sites dating to between 1250 and 1500 AD in just 7 percent of the Amazon basin, with potentially more than 18,000 others in total. More than a million people may have lived in areas that today seem largely inhospitable.

Their findings included ceremonial centers, large platform mounds, ringed villages, and fortified settlements in north-central Brazil’s upper Tapajós Basin, where few archaeologists had ventured. To me, what is extraordinary about this discovery is just how much archaeologists and others had taken for granted about what might, or might not, be there in the rainforest. Satellite data allowed the archaeological team to search large areas in a matter of months, when the job would have taken decades on the ground. All this, from a subfield that barely existed 20 years ago. Although the world is learning more, there’s still a way to go in popular understanding. In a recent travel insurance application for my work abroad, I was quoted an insanely high price for one year of coverage, over $50,000. When I inquired why, the team admitted they thought I traveled into space to look down from the actual satellites for ruins. I’m still laughing.

the pyramids of giza as seen from space
The pyramids of Giza as seen from space on August 15, 2001. Credit: Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory.

As I write this, I am downloading brand-new satellite imagery of Giza, in Egypt, the site of the last standing wonder of the ancient world. Who knows if I’ll find anything previously undiscovered there. The main thing I have learned is to expect the unexpected. New sites and features appear where you hadn’t previously thought to look, or, in cases like Giza, have the potential to overturn long-held assumptions about major sites and time periods. In the following chapters, you’ll read about projects that did just that.

Mapping sites from space is fun, but getting to explore them is what takes me back in time, often thousands of years, to eras when people believed in different gods, spoke languages now extinct, and lived in places assumed never to have been inhabited—but they were all Homo sapiens sapiens. Just like us.

As such, archaeology has the potential to inspire in us great wonder, bringing us together. Today, given the conflicts and unrest around the world, this is very much needed. Some people don’t get the chance to experience that sense of awe in person at ancient sites, but I hope the stories shared here will give a sense not only of this, but of how much we assume about past peoples, and how wrong we have sometimes been, given our access to such fragmented information.

There aren’t any papers published yet on whether remote sensing can complete the puzzle of what it means to be human and how to avoid the pitfalls of great civilizations that came before us. All I can say is that there is extraordinary wisdom to be learned from previous cultures. It’s shaped me profoundly and allows me to place current events in the long arc of perspective. For more than 300,000 years, our ancestors have migrated across Planet Earth, surviving and, in some cases, thriving—being creative, bold, innovative, and, of course, destructive.

This story of space archaeology, its contributions to research, and the tales it helps us tell, only introduces the possibilities of the science. The scale of these new stories, however, should amaze and inspire us. In our history on Earth, humans have habitually pushed deeper into the unknown; as we now begin to focus on exploring Mars, and farther afield, we can imagine 100,000 years from today, when there will be literal space archaeologists traveling from planet to planet, exploring the remnants of our early settlement efforts in other galaxies.

The origins of their field will be many light-years away, but the questions will remain close to those we ask today, about people who came before us. The answers matter far less than those questions. Perhaps it’s a start to understanding what makes us human: our ability to ask how, where, when, why, and who, and creating the tools we need to bring the answers to life, on Earth, looking down from outer space.

Excerpted from Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah Parcak. Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Parcak. Reprinted with permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved.

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Meet the Writer

About Sarah Parcak

Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist, National Geographic Fellow, and anthropology professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham in Birmingham, Alabama.

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