Searching For The Secrets Of Ancient Cultures—From Space

17:32 minutes

city ruins filled with meandering tourists under the summer sun. in the distance are mountain ranges
The ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii is one of Italy’s most popular tourist attractions. Taken June 2019. Credit: Katie Feather

Thinking about taking a big trip this summer? You might consider skipping the large urban centers, like Paris or Madrid, for something a little older—like Pompeii. The ancient city in Italy is one of the country’s largest tourist attractions, receiving over 4 million visitors a year. Hollowed out buildings, cobblestone streets, and delicate mosaics are all that’s left of this ancient Roman civilization after it was covered by volcanic ash from Mt. Vesusius in 79 A.D. 

But why are so many drawn thousands of miles to experience what is essentially a ghost town? Perhaps because archaeology is inspiring tourism around the world. From Egypt, China, South America to India, archaeologists are experiencing a golden era of discovery thanks to new tools, like big data, artificial intelligence, and satellite imagery, that help uncover buried civilizations. Sarah Parcak, professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham and author of the new book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, joins Ira to talk about what past civilizations can teach us about our current moment in time. 

Read an excerpt of Parcak’s new book.

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Segment Guests

Sarah Parcak

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

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Thinking about taking a big trip this summer? You might consider skipping more popular destinations like Paris or Madrid for something a little older, like, let’s say, Pompeii. The ancient city in Italy receives over four million visitors a year. It’s one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions– hollowed-out buildings, cobblestone streets, delicate mosaics, are all that’s left of this ancient Roman civilization after it was covered by volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. 

Why are so many drawn thousands of miles to experience what is, essentially, a ghost town? Perhaps because there’s a modern lesson to be learned from the city’s ancient history and because everywhere archeology is inspiring tourism– Egypt, India, China, South America, archaeologists are experiencing a golden era of discovery thanks to new tools that help uncover buried civilizations and a desire to understand what past civilizations can teach us about our current moment in time. 

Joining me now is someone famous for digging up the secrets of ancient cultures, and she’s got a great new book out– Archaeology from Space– How The Future Shapes Our Past. Sarah Parcak, professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Welcome to Science Friday. Welcome back. 

SARAH PARCAK: Thank you. It’s great to be back. 

IRA FLATOW: So what is contributing to this golden age of archeology that we’re experiencing right now? 

SARAH PARCAK: It’s the extraordinary application of science, both from things like satellite imagery and DNA studies. Archaeologists are collaborating with computer scientists. They’re looking at big data and machine learning. And all this amazing new data, and it’s allowing us to ask completely new questions of the archaeological record. 

IRA FLATOW: Such as? 

SARAH PARCAK: So, for example, instead of looking at a couple of sites that you’re able to survey over the course of a season, instead, you’re looking at a data set of thousands of archaeological sites and you’re able to, from space, see evidence of architecture on top of the sites and make inferences about their time period, looking at when civilizations rose and collapsed based on the actual number of cities or sites that were occupied at the time. 

IRA FLATOW: So you could look at the satellite data from the comfort of your office in Alabama without having to go on to the site first? 

SARAH PARCAK: Sometimes you have to. My colleagues who work in places like Iraq and Syria, of course, haven’t been able to visit many of these sites for the last number of years because of ongoing conflict. But what it really allows you to do as well is target sites to visit on the ground, whether you’re doing survey work or excavation. And if you find a site that has something that looks really extraordinary, maybe a temple maybe, part of the city, then it’s there and you can go in and start digging. 

IRA FLATOW: And from reading your experiences in your book, you really love getting your hands dirty there. You talk about digging through the soil. The inner five-year-old is screaming, is how you describe it. 

SARAH PARCAK: That’s right. Now that we have a young child, he’s 6 almost 7, I get that visceral excitement. He’s just kind of taught me again what it was like to be a kid, and I’m glad to say that I haven’t lost it too much. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, tell me about that. Why is your inner five-year-old screaming? What excites you so much about this? 

SARAH PARCAK: Well, I think this idea that when you’re digging, you never know what’s going to come up in the next trial scrape. And it’s this constant drug, right? You’re just digging, and digging, and digging, and hoping for that hit of excitement. Because one scrape of the trowel, you could be hitting a new wall. You could be uncovering part of a relief, the face of someone that hasn’t been seen in thousands of years, you know? I’ve gotten to travel all over the world. I’ve gotten to do some pretty amazing things. And it’s the most thrilling activity I know. 

IRA FLATOW: And it runs in your family, doesn’t it? You write about your grandfather here as being an influence. 

SARAH PARCAK: So my grandfather was a pioneer in the application of aerial photography to forestry. He was a forestry professor at the University of Maine in Orono. And while we may of think, well, aerial photography, I mean, it’s 2019, but when he started using it in the ’40s and ’50s, this was cutting-edge technology. He used it to map tree heights. He used it to identify specific species to go out and look at for paper production. And he’s the reason I took my first remote sensing course as an undergraduate. I thought, well, what did Grandpy do? I wonder if this could be applied to archeology. 

IRA FLATOW: That is really cool. But you also write that pyramids and temples are amazing things to discover from the air or on the ground. Those features are rare, though, and represent a tiny fraction of what archaeologists find. We are far more likely to dig up a wall or a room in a small house, and it may seem less glamorous, but trust me, those are the findings that inform history over time. And as it turns out, satellites are just the thing to help find them. 

SARAH PARCAK: You know, when you think about the number of people, maybe, that lived in an action capital city, you’ve got the king and maybe some priests, but the bulk of the people that lived in the past were just like us, living their lives, going to work, dealing with their families. And that’s the preponderance of the evidence that we find in the archaeological record. 

And it’s really hard to pinpoint without using any kind of technologies exactly where these walls or other features might be. And that’s what the satellites allow us to do. It’s almost like a space-based X-ray that allows you to see exactly where to dig so that you can target your excavations and reveal these rooms and houses that allow you to tell the story of everyday people from so long ago. 

IRA FLATOW: And you talk about Africa being one of the greatest frontiers for archaeological discovery in the world. Why is that? 

SARAH PARCAK: So when you think about vast areas of the planet that have not been fully explored archaeologically, one of the major places is the dense rainforest that makes up the heart of Central Africa. While the movie Black Panther was, of course, fictional, Wakanda doesn’t exist, the essence of this grand civilization being hidden somewhere in the heart of Africa, I think, is true. 

There could be multiple civilizations there. And I think when you apply new laser technologies similar to those that have been applied in Cambodia and in Central America, I think archaeologists are going to be blown away. And the history of the continent could potentially be rewritten. 

IRA FLATOW: And even in South America, we’ve followed the people writing books and doing research, discovering ancient civilizations in South America, where the jungles are overgrown now, but where you say in your book, there could be thousands of old civilizations. 

SARAH PARCAK: Yeah, I think of the work of people like Michael Heckenberger are doing, the book, The Lost City of Z, while semi-mythological, also, there’s some truth to it, this idea that there are these grand cities that existed in the heart of Brazil. And what other specialists have done looking at satellite imagery, they’ve revealed dozens and dozens of these sites and extrapolating that over the area of the landscape of Brazil. Yeah, there could be thousands of these. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s one of my favorite books. 

SARAH PARCAK: It’s just amazing. 

IRA FLATOW: Amazing book. Too bad the movie didn’t do it justice. But moving on– 


What was the first project that you worked on that used the tools of space archeology? 

SARAH PARCAK: The first project I did was as an undergraduate, so almost 20 years ago, and I looked at infrared satellite imagery from NASA to try to find water sources along the West Coast of Sinai. And it might not seem like a big project, but the reality is most ancient cultures couldn’t survive in the desert without water. So you find the water source, and you find the sights. So that was my first introduction to this bigger world and pulled me in. I got to do some survey work, found some really cool sites and features, and that just got me hooked. 

IRA FLATOW: And were other archaeologists easily convinced that this was a great way to look at stuff? 

SARAH PARCAK: It was a hard science to not just break into but to use. You know, I was definitely one of the early adopters, definitely not the first person. There was a cohort of us that really started using the technology 15 to 20 years ago. 

But I think a lot of our colleagues thought, oh, silver bullet solution, roll of eyes. That’s never going to work. What are you doing preaching to us about this new science? But now, when you go to an archaeological conference, nearly everyone is looking at and using satellite imagery. It’s become a core tool, part of the archaeological toolkit. 

IRA FLATOW: You write that these discoveries are mere hints of the insights now available to archaeologists, thanks to new technologies, but it is never just about the discovery or even new theories. This is about shaking archaeological foundations, testing new ideas that sometimes work well and sometimes leave more questions than answers. 

SARAH PARCAK: I think of the really amazing work that’s thing done by my colleagues at Tulane University. So the global headlines about a year, year and a half ago, when this team used laser imagery taken from airplanes, a technology called Lidar, and it revealed over 60,000 new features at the site of Tikal alone. And they’ve been able to map thousands upon thousands of previously unmapped sites throughout Central America. 

And my colleagues have told me, this– there’s enough data there to launch 5,000 PhDs. For the first time, people who specialize in the Maya can look at an entire landscape that was occupied by the Maya over time and ask new questions about how and why that civilization rose and collapsed. Can you imagine what having that data for the whole of the Earth’s surface could do for understanding our human history? 

IRA FLATOW: But yet do you think we have any machine learning or any AI that could take the place of the human eye? I mean, the people are still the best at picking out patterns and things, are they not? 

SARAH PARCAK: They are, but the challenge that I face and my colleagues face is, 99.99% of the time we spend looking at satellite imagery, we’re not finding anything. We’re looking through vast areas of desert or large areas of forest. And what machine learning can do is help to prioritize areas, where there could be potential sites or features. 

And I think a great application of this would be to target or pinpoint areas, say, where there’s looting going on. In massive landscape, do you want to spend 100 hours looking for the looting or do you want to spend five minutes and say, yes, indeed, that’s a looting pit. So I think it could really help us to target our search. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking with anthropologist Sarah Parcak, author of Archeology from Space, how the future shapes our past. Let me go right to the last part of that title. How does the future shape our past? 

SARAH PARCAK: All these new technologies, we’re able to gather so much more data. We’re able to pinpoint areas to excavate and explore in places that we never thought possible. And, all of a sudden, with all this new information, instead of a data set of five tombs, we’re looking at a data set of 1,000 tombs. 

And we’re able to tell much better and more nuanced stories about specific periods of time. So I think, for me, the more these technologies develop, the more we’re able to gather all this information, the past comes to life in ways that it can’t, when you’re not looking at as much data. 

IRA FLATOW: And so how do you get archaeological digs funded? 

SARAH PARCAK: It’s a huge challenge. All over the world, governments are cutting funding for the arts. But there’s a big study that just came out here in the US. Cultural tourism brings in tens of billions of dollars to the US annually and does around the world. 

So what I’m hoping that with helping to popularize the science with making people be more aware and more excited about the past and the role that it can play in informing us about our world today, governments will provide more funding. Because you’ve got an, I don’t know, less than 5% or 10% chance at getting money from the National Science Foundation. Of course, we take money from private donors as well, but it’s really, really hard to get digs funded. 

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that books like yours– do you consider yourself a popularizer of Archeology and performing a useful function that way? 

SARAH PARCAK: Yeah, I think I’ve stepped into the role over the last four or five years. I certainly didn’t enter archaeology with this in mind at all. I was very content to do my do my research and, over time, started doing more and more outreach and more television work. And I think a lot more archaeologists are doing it, especially the younger professors or students in grad school. I think it’s an essential role. 

We’re combating things like the idea that aliens built the pyramids, which is ridiculous and, frankly, racist. So many of the rise in populism, white nationalists, they’re subverting and using archaeological symbolism to forward their goals. So I think it’s up to archaeologists to really step up and show that the great role that archeology can play, not just in combating these views, but also in inspiring us and giving us a sense of hope for the future right now. And I think we all need a little bit more hope right now. 

IRA FLATOW: Can people sign up for an archaeological dig someplace? 

SARAH PARCAK: Yes, they can. So what I recommend people do is the Archaeological Institute of America has an archaeological fieldwork bulletin online, and there are a number of archaeological projects that will take volunteers for a day around the country. Certainly, places like the UK, it’s possible to go volunteer for a day or two. There are young archeology societies. Every country’s different. But there are also a number of programs around the US, where museums will spend an afternoon with a curator, learn what happens in museums. 

The organization I run, Global Explorer is an online citizen science platform, and anyone in the world, especially kids, can get online and help look at satellite imagery and find archeological sites. So there’s a lot of ways for kids to get involved. 

IRA FLATOW: We certainly hope they will get involved. Thank you very much, Dr. Parcak, for taking time to be with us today. 

SARAH PARCAK: Thank you so much for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: And this wonderful new book, Dr. Sarah Parcak is professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. And her book is Archeology from Space– How the Future Shapes our Past. And we have an excerpt. You can find it up on our website at sciencefriday.com/cultures. 

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