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What Went Through My Head When I Found Out I Won the 2016 TED Prize

Archaeologist Sarah Parcak analyzes satellite imagery to see ancient sites from the air that she then excavates on the ground. Last week at the annual TED Conference, she shared her plan to build a citizen science platform that will let people around the world discover sites. Photo byBret Hartman/TED
Archaeologist Sarah Parcak analyzes satellite imagery to see ancient sites from the air that she then excavates on the ground. She’s the winner of the 2016 TED Prize, and last week she shared her plan to build a citizen science platform and let people around the world discover sites too. Photo by Bret Hartman/TED

The last five years have been horrific for archaeology.

I am a space archaeologist, and before 2011, I spent my time happily processing satellite images to spot subtle changes to the Earth’s surface that hint at ancient sites, hidden from view. But since 2011, my work has changed. Like many of my colleagues, I now spend a large chunk of time mapping and monitoring the destruction of ancient sites. The looting of antiquities has always been an issue; the pyramids of ancient Egypt were ransacked not long after they were “sealed up.” But satellite imagery shows that wide-scale, systematic looting is taking place across the Middle East, and that its frequency has increased dramatically in recent years.

This is in addition to the intentional destruction of sites. Archaeologists sometimes know about threatened sites before the general public does, and we could all see the writing on the wall as ISIL approached Palmyra, one of the great cities of antiquity—a true symbol of ancient diplomacy and culture. ISIL is all about shock value: “What can we do today that the world will notice and that will help us recruit?” They treated Palmyra like Halloween candy, savoring each destructive bite, stretching it out to make it last as long as possible. You can almost predict, piece by piece, what they’re going to destroy next.

Sarah Parcak always dreamed of digging in the ancient city of Palmyra. But alas, much of the site has been destroyed by ISIL. Image by Google Earth/Digital Globe
Sarah Parcak always dreamed of visiting the ancient city of Palmyra. But alas, much of the site has been destroyed by ISIL, as shown in this satellite shot. Image courtesy DigitalGlobe

Just days before my final interview for the TED Prize, news broke that ISIL had blown up Palmyra’s Tower of Elahbel, built around 103 A.D. I felt raw and angry; we had time to protect this site, and we didn’t. I proceeded with the interview, of course, answering question after question. When I finished, I felt I had done the best I could do.

So when I got a call a few days later and heard the words, “You’re the 2016 TED Prize winner,” I lost it. I felt like I’d been hit by a tidal wave; I quite literally couldn’t speak. Looking back, I realize why that moment felt so overwhelming: the weight of responsibility for our field had settled on me. So many of my colleagues are doing extraordinary work on the front lines; thousands of men and women around the world, particularly in the Middle East, are risking their lives to protect ancient sites and objects. This prize is a celebration of these unsung heroes. We can use this prize to get the world involved in the important work of protecting our cultural heritage before it slips away.

This prize is not about me; it’s about archaeology. It’s about our connection to the past. It’s about using technology and the power of the crowd to search for ancient treasures and put an end to looting and site destruction.

The site of el-Lisht in Egypt, just south of Cairo, dates back to the Middle Kingdom. Seen from space today, it is speckled with looting pits. Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak
The site of el-Lisht in Egypt, just south of Cairo, dates back to the Middle Kingdom. Seen from space today, it is speckled with looting pits. Image courtesy DigitalGlobe

 

This is what those little dots in the satellite images look like on the ground — deep holes where looters have stolen objects from ancient tombs. Sarah Parcak hopes that better mapping of sites will help authorities guard against this kind of robbery. Photo by Sarah Parcak
This is what those little dots in the satellite images look like on the ground: deep holes where looters have stolen objects from ancient tombs. Sarah Parcak hopes that better mapping of sites will help authorities guard against this kind of robbery. Her vision is for people around the world to help. Photo by Sarah Parcak

People don’t realize the sheer number of archaeological sites that exist in the Middle East. There are hundreds of thousands of sites, and most of them haven’t been mapped. When people look at these areas using satellite imagery, their response is invariably, “This is amazing. There are so many sites we don’t know about.” We can’t protect sites we haven’t mapped. This prize will allow us to find new, creative, tech-savvy ways to find and protect ancient sites.

About a year ago, I went to a conference run by a colleague that brought together an array of well-known, seasoned archaeologists. It was, essentially, a crisis summit. Representatives from countries all across the Middle East shared their horror stories and, while it was awful, it was incredible to have that solidarity. Some of these archaeologists have spent 40 or 50 years in the field, and this isn’t the first time they’ve seen upheaval. We all recognize the unique challenges of this moment and know that this is not a problem that’s going to be fixed overnight with the wave of a wand. But we also know: there’s hope. We’re all in this together.

The TED Prize will help us bring the world along for the ride.

Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist, and the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. With this $1 million prize, she’s building a citizen science platform that will allow anyone, anywhere, to join in the search for and protection of ancient sites. Sign up for updates on this project, tentatively called Global Xplorer°. And stay tuned to Explorers Journal, where Sarah will be sharing the evolution of her TED Prize wish and her thoughts on archaeology over the next year.