May 25th, 2012
02:54 PM ET

'Space archeologist' uses satellites to peer into the past

Editor's note: Sarah Parcak has been dubbed the "real-life Indiana Jones," but she prefers to be called a "space archaeologist." From her lab at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Parcak analyzes infrared satellite imagery to map lost cities thought gone forever.

By Sarah Parcak, Special to CNN

(CNN) - As children, everyone dreams of finding a long-lost city, or countless archaeological treasures much like the ones discovered by Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Some of us never outgrow that desire to seek out and explore ancient ruins. And, as it turns out, much of the ancient world remains unexplored and undiscovered.

I am a “space archaeologist,” a new subfield of archaeology where satellite imagery is used to map and locate ancient archaeological sites and features across the globe. Satellite imagery is helpful because it allows us to see beyond the visible light spectrum, and thus see features partially buried by modern vegetation or soil. From thousands of miles away in our university labs, we can map these features and then use the precise data in the field in time- and cost-efficient ways.

The most important thing is to survey or excavate the features to confirm they are actually there.

Ultimately, this is not about finding new sites, tombs or pyramids (although that is certainly a cool part of my job). What is important is using the new information to answer bigger questions about our past. For example, how did people in the past react to wide-scale changes in climate? We can examine settlement pattern changes over time in relationship to climactic data to examine ancient human-environment interactions. This is where we learn that people thousands of years ago dealt with similar issues as the people of today.

Nothing changes about human nature. The people of antiquity did not have iPads, electric cars or the Internet, but they did have issues with mother-in-laws, being hung over, and with corrupt politicians. This also makes it crucial to use the most advanced science possible to map our past before it is gone forever. Satellites are an essential part of mapping and understanding our past, and to help us to realize that the real treasure of antiquity is not gold, but the information that helps us to understand the past better, and hence, ourselves.

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Filed under: Archaeology • Innovation • Tech • The Next List • Video
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Felipei Mckaint

    What's up dear, me and my mom are also watch comic movies except after I completed my homework

    August 1, 2012 at 1:04 am | Reply
  2. Bill Wyman

    It it stunning that nothing Parack claims to have found has been verified and yet she uses the word "discover".
    There is nothing new about using remote sensing in archeology

    July 24, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  3. Teo

    "Be sure your sins will find you out". Common sense should tell you that if you make egunoh noise, you will draw attention to yourself.

    July 21, 2012 at 2:37 am | Reply
  4. brenda

    Don't forget to sand off those hard edges of the cork. Give them a nice round basllat like edge. So nice to see Progress!Congrats!Regards,Steve J.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  5. KM

    Hey, wait a minute.... I think she's my little brother who disappeared in 1990 !!!!!!! JOEY !!!!

    June 2, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Reply
  6. KM

    NIce big-uns !!

    June 2, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Reply
    • Yohan

      time of year presents a few dlmemias, too. For example: Where will you spend New Years Eve? Anda0Where should you do your holiday shopping?a0Perhaps most importantly, what will you buy — or make — your mother for Christmas? And when

      July 18, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  7. KM

    Can she see where she has been all this time? Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha ...

    June 2, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  8. alice

    This story was fascinating. Kudos to CNN for putting on valucable programming where viewers can actually learn something! I try to watch every week– any chance of putting up full episodes online, too? Keep up the great work!!!! =)

    May 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  9. TheAnalyst666

    no they shouldnt because they might start making IEDs

    May 29, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  10. Steamr

    Certainly a viable idea. :) As an amateur railroad historian, I often use Google Earth to map abandoned railroad lines, using old railroad maps while looking for the roadbed on either my iPhone or PC with Google Earth. It's amazing how often the roadbed of a line abandoned 70 years ago will still be visible as a line through a forest, or former fills protruding into streams or rivers that a railroad bridge formerly crossed, with bridge abutments still visible. Even if the roadbed disappears approaching an urban area that may have redeveloped the land the roadbed used, often the alignments of buildings such as industrial facilities that may have had rail service show where the line might have been. The foundations of steam-era railroad facilities such as roundhouses & turntables are often visible long after the structures themselves have been razed or scrapped. :)

    May 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  11. desmond c.

    dear mrs. Parcak, i am fascinated by the work you do. i was glued to the t.v. watching the report about you. can you recommend sites that i can ( in a strictly amateur way ) to do my own exploring of "space archeology" from home in the Bronx? what you do is amazing and admirable. thanks for what you do and your time.

    May 28, 2012 at 8:10 am | Reply
  12. John Tinelli

    Dear Ms Parcak,
    Can you use infrared technology to predict weather changes such as the next ice age?

    May 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply

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