Sarah Parcak and the secrets of the satellites

Parcak’s fascination with Sue the T. rex makes sense when you consider that Parcak has her own sassy Twitter presence. She’s one of a media-savvy cohort of young archaeologists who use social media to live-tweet digs, poke at pseudoscience, and share science jokes. But dinosaurs aren’t her specialty. She’s an Egyptologist, after all. So we head to the Field Museum’s “Inside Ancient Egypt” exhibit, where we walk into a three-story replica of a mastaba, a type of ancient Egyptian tomb.

Parcak is hyped up on caffeine and talking a little fast, and it’s all I can do to keep up. She took the last flight into Chicago the night before so she could maximize time with her family, which includes husband Greg Mumford, a fellow archaeologist whom she proposed to at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and their son, Gabriel, whose birthday happens to be tomorrow. “I had four cups of coffee before this,” she says, “because … travel.”

I can practically see the hashtag in my head.

It’s a busy day at the museum, and our visit is punctuated with the sounds of children shouting as they run around among the mummies, jewelry, and ceramics. We reach two original chambers from the Old Kingdom burial site, made of limestone blocks carved 5,000 years ago. Hieroglyphs on the walls show servants trussing geese and bringing offerings. Parcak explains to me how the seemingly two-dimensional art is three-dimensional after all — that is, once you learn to look at it through the eyes of an Egyptian from 2400 B.C. My mind is blown.

A tour group that has been trailing us catches up. Their guide, not realizing who Parcak is, invites us to join them. We climb to the roof of the mastaba instead.

Parcak credits two major influences on her path to becoming a space archaeologist: Indiana Jones (do you sense a theme?) and her grandfather.

As a child of the 1980s, she would spend Friday nights watching movies on VHS with her family in their home in Bangor, Maine, and Raiders of the Lost Ark was in heavy rotation. The adventure in the movie called out to her. (After giving a TED Talk in 2016, she got to meet Harrison Ford, who plays Indiana Jones; she had brought a brown fedora, Indy’s signature chapeau, and there’s a photo of them fighting over the hat.) Parcak became so obsessed with Egypt that she dressed as a mummy for a school project in seventh grade, wrapping herself in toilet paper and rising out of a refrigerator box accurately decorated as a sarcophagus.

Later, when it came time to study archaeology in college, it was her grandfather Harold Young who influenced her trajectory. Young had been a paratrooper in World War II and would plot his landing positions using aerial photographs. After the war, he became a professor of forestry at the University of Maine, where he developed new techniques to map tree heights. As a child, Parcak would look through his stereoscope, a device like the old View-Master toy that created three-dimensional images by looking at two copies of a photo from slightly different perspectives. She learned more about his research after he died, and she was intrigued enough that during her senior year at Yale she took an intro class on remote sensing. That class led to a master’s and a PhD at Cambridge, and to her career today.

Parcak found a new focus after rumors surfaced of large-scale looting of famous Egyptian burial sites in the wake of the Arab Spring. Responding to an email discussion group of archaeologists, she wrote that the only way to know if looting had happened would be to compare before and after satellite images. The editor-in-chief of National Geographic took interest, and the National Geographic Society began collaborating with her to map the plundering. Soon, she and colleagues had identified 200,000 looting pits at 279 archaeological sites across Egypt. The signs were often clear: bulldozer tracks or dark squares surrounded by a doughnut of earth. On the images, they look like pimples dotting the terrain.

Parcak had an ambitious idea: to build an online platform to crowdsource the job of finding and protecting the world’s heritage. That idea won her the $1 million TED Prize for 2016 — the same year she spoke at the Rotary International Convention in Seoul, Korea — and she used the money to build GlobalXplorer.org, where citizen-scientists receive a short tutorial and then look at satellite images for telltale signs of looting and ancient structures.

The project started by looking at images from Peru because of that country’s existing innovative work in archaeology. In a little over a year after the platform’s launch, more than 80,000 people from over 100 countries signed up. An assessment found that these untrained members of the public, who ranged in age from young children to the elderly, have a 90 percent accuracy rate. What they find will help ensure the protection of these sites in the future.

Archaeology can be a path to peace, as well as to the past.

We head downstairs to the lower level of the Field Museum and take a look at Middle Kingdom coffins and soul houses, which are like the dollhouses of the great beyond — small clay replicas that often contain sculpted foods to feed the dead in the afterlife. Researchers love them because they show what the buildings of antiquity looked like. As we’re talking about why archaeologists are so interested in tombs — “The irony is you get to the world of the living by digging in the world of the dead,” Parcak explains — I notice a woman listening in. Eventually, she interrupts us. “Sarah?” she asks.

It ends up being another world-renowned Egyptologist, Emily Teeter. The two exchange the usual pleasantries: How’s the family, what are you doing here, what’s next for you. “Small world,” Parcak says as we part ways. “It’s such a small community of Egyptologists.” And here they are in Chicago’s version of Egypt.

We meander through a marketplace scene, checking out 5,000-year-old burnished pottery. “This tends to be most of what we find on excavations: tens of thousands of pieces of pottery,” Parcak says. “There are people who are going to be born in hundreds of years, and they’re going to be specialists in Tupperware.” We see mummified falcons and a pair of woven reed shoes; their backs curve up, making the footwear look like giant commas. “The Louboutins of antiquity,” Parcak says. “Those are fancy. Someone’s wearing shoes like that, you know they’re rich.”

In the middle of the marketplace, Parcak pulls out her phone and checks Twitter.

Sue has retweeted her.