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Meet Sarah Parcak, a high-tech Indiana Jones, who just won $1 million for tracking down antiquities looters

National Geographic Fellow and University of Alabama anthropologist Sarah Parcak at the archaeological site of Tanis in Egypt, where a team is investigating one of the structures she identified from satellite imagery. Parcak recently won a $1 million award from TED for her use of satellite imagery to spot archaeological sites and monitor looting. (Courtesy Sarah Parcak)

In isolated deserts, air-conditioned storage facilities, ancient underground chambers and on the darkest corridors of the Internet, a vast, global trade in looted artifacts is flourishing.

Some of the participants are terrorist groups who fund their bloody wars with profits from the sale of stolen goods. Some are criminal masterminds, others are members of small-time gangs. Still more are ordinary, desperate people who know that one small scarab could mean food in their bellies and schoolbooks for their kids.

They work underground, figuratively and sometimes literally, making their trade all but impossible to track. That’s why Sarah Parcak spends so much of her time looking at satellite images, hoping to catch looters in the act. If she can pinpoint a site being ransacked — the telltale piles of dirt, the holes in the ground where nothing was before — that’s one step closer to finding what was stolen and bringing it back where it belongs.

Parcak, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a National Geographic fellow, calls what she does “space archaeology.” It’s a description that invites comparisons to Indiana Jones — comparisons that Parcak, who admits to possessing a brown fedora, a leather satchel and a healthy thirst for adventure, wholeheartedly welcomes.

But if Parcak is a real-life “Indy,” she’s one with satellite technology, infrared processing, and — as of this week — a $1 million award from the conference nonprofit TED at her disposal.

Parcak can’t say yet what she’ll be doing with the award money; her project will be announced, in very TED-ian fashion, at a livestreamed talk in February.

“But I can say this,” Parcak in a phone interview from her home in Alabama. “We are at a tipping point right now, with conflict in the Middle East, with climate change and polluting and looting, where antiquities are really threatened. … If we don’t protect these sites, some of them are going to be gone.”

“But we are also at a tipping point where we have all these incredible technologies,” she continued. “And we can use them” to identify sites and track looters.

The pioneering field of satellite archaeology (less swashbuckling-sounding than “space archaeology,” perhaps, but somewhat more accurate) is based in extremely complicated image analysis techniques and one very simple premise. Instead of digging in the ground to find treasures from the past, scan for them from the air.

The view from 400 miles up is surprisingly good. The newest satellite technology (Parcak works with a firm called DigitalGlobe) allows researchers to take images with a pixel resolution of about 10 inches. Huge archaeological structures — pyramids, coliseums, temples, tombs — appear with startling clarity in the images. And even smaller objects are sharply defined.

“You can zoom in from space and basically see your laptop,” Parcak said. 

For years, with funding from the National Science Foundation and National Geographic, Parcak has been using this technology to identify sites for archaeological exploration. Even when buried under centuries of sand, the remnants of past civilizations leave a signature on a landscape. Imported stone might affect the chemicals in the soil. Infrared scanning can reveal chambers underground. From her office at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Laboratory for Global Observation, which Parcak founded, she and her colleagues run satellite images of Egyptian deserts, Peruvian mountains and Roman seashores through countless computer algorithms, hoping they’ll reveal something new.

It’s tiring and sometimes tedious work — in the words of Indiana Jones, “70 percent of archaeology is done in the library” (or the lab). But for the most part, it pays off: In Egypt alone, Parcak has helped uncover 17 pyramids, 1,000 tombs and some 3,000 forgotten settlements.

“But it doesn’t end in the lab,” Parcak said. “That’s where the fun begins.”

After identifying sites of interest, Parcak will share them with fellow archaeologists — usually other research teams or local antiquities ministries — and sometimes accompany them on the expedition.

The parallels between Indiana Jones and real-life archaeologists fall apart around here. Parcak never works alone (her husband, fellow Egyptologist Greg Mumford, is her preferred project co-director and “best archaeological find”) and she never works in a vacuum. An Egyptologist, Parcak studied Arabic to be able to converse with Egyptian colleagues and residents of towns near digs. She brings school kids out to the sites to inspire interest in their buried heritage. She talks with local leaders about the tourism potential of newly excavated sites.

“A lot of people are surprised when I talk so much about the present,” she said, “but politics is just a crucial part of archaeology. You’re developing long-term partnerships and collaborations, getting people excited about their heritage. You need to be very bit a diplomat alongside scientist.”

Sarah Parcak’s 2012 TED talk

Actual archaeology may involve somewhat fewer shootouts and chase scenes than the typical Harrison Ford role, but it can still be dangerous, especially for local scholars who remain in conflict-ridden areas to protect the sites they study. The retired head of the Palmyra Department of Antiquities and Museums, 83-year-old Khalid al-Assad, was beheaded by Islamic State militants in August after he refused to reveal the location of the ancient city’s treasures.

“Asaad refused to leave the city, although he was aware of the danger he was facing,” a relative told the Atlantic.

Asaad’s body was left in a public square in the nearby modern city. A placard hung around his neck identified him as an “apostate” and called him the “director of idolatry” in Palmyra.

“He was a martyr. He was extraordinary,” Parcak said. “He refused to leave the site after working there for over 50 years. That was his life. And he ultimately lost his life because of it.”

She breathed out, a long, low sound.

“I’m looking at looting photos from space, and there are people putting their lives on the line every day protecting their heritage,” she said. “I call these people the real culture heroes.”

The Islamic State, which now controls huge swaths of Iraq and Syria, is known to have looted millions of dollars of artifacts from heritage sites in both countries in order to finance its terrorism. It has also demolished untold numbers of heritage sites to make dramatic propaganda videos and a political point.

But terrorism is not the only threat to the world’s ancient treasures, Parcak said. Looting — a problem as old as heritage sites themselves — has ticked up significantly in recent years. In Egypt, the power vacuum that resulted from the 2011 revolution exposed the country’s antiquities to ransacking by seasoned looters and locals made desperate by the economic downturn. The sudden appearance of dozens of new looting sites in the areas she studies is what got Parcak interested in using satellite images to track heritage theft in the first place.

On one of Parcak’s photos, looting sites appear as dark rectangles surrounded by a doughnut ring of dirt. Time-lapsed images show these holes appearing like pimples, a few more every month, pocking landscapes that had previously been smooth sand.

“There’s always a little jump to your heart when you realize you’ve got looting,” Parcak said.

But she doesn’t have time to get too emotional. Evidence of theft has to be delivered quickly to local antiquities officials and international authorities, so they know to be on the lookout for trafficked artifacts from those sites. 

“We’re collecting information, we’re collecting data,” Parcak said. “At the end of the day you want to do something useful to stop it.”

Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified Parcak’s academic affiliation. She is a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.