Space archaeologist and Egyptologist Sarah Parcak discusses how she turned her love of history and the natural world into a career that uses satellite imaging technology to reveal the remains of ancient Egyptian civilizations.

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  • Among her many roles, Sarah Parcak is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, founding director of the Laboratory for Global Health Observation (LGHO), and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. As an Egyptologist, Parcak studies the archaeologyculture and historyof ancient Egypt, a civilization in northeastern Africa lasting from 3200 BCE to about 400 CE. Since her research includes the use of satellite imagery and remote sensing/GIS (geographic information system) technologies to locate and map her study sites, she is also known as a satellite, or space, archaeologist. The scientific field of space archaeology is fairly new and one that Parcak helped pioneer. She is credited with being the first Egyptologist to use satellite imaging to identify new archaeological sites in Egypt. By mapping the past more quickly and at a higher resolution (more detailed) and broader scale, archaeologists are better equipped to find, study, and preserve ancient sites and the human history they contain.  

     

    GIS and remote sensing methods, including satellite and infrared imaging, are used to gather and display information about the Earth's surface from a distance. Satellite imaging makes use of the properties of different types of light waves, which occur along a spectrum according to their wavelengths and energy. Visible light waves are those that humans can see with the unaided eye. Infrared light waves have longer wavelengths and lower energy than visible light waves, so humans cannot see them without specialized equipment. In satellite imaging, the amount of infrared and visible light energy reflected back from the surface of Earth is recorded and then converted into an electronic signal used to produce a visual or thermal image. By analyzing the information contained in these images, scientists like Parcak can interpret and map what lies on and just below the Earth’s surface.

     

    As an Egyptologist, Parcak’s focus is on using these satellite images to locate buried temples, tombs, roads, and even entire cities that were once part of ancient Egyptian civilization. By using satellite imaging technology, Parcak can survey archaeological sites on a much broader scale and focus her excavation efforts, which saves her team money, time, and resources. Parcak’s data predict that less than one percent of ancient Egypt has been discovered and excavated. According to Parcak, the technologies of the future (GIS, remote sensing, satellite imaging) are essential tools for mapping the past and saving ancient history before it is gone. This is why Parcak approaches her career as an archaeologist with such passion. She wants to help reveal and preserve human history to help humans better understand who they are and why they are here. 

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ancient Egypt Noun

    civilization in northeastern Africa, lasting from 3200 BCE to about 400 CE.

    archaeology Noun

    study of human history, based on material remains.

    Encyclopedic Entry: archaeology
    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: civilization
    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    Egyptologist Noun

    person who studies the culture and history of ancient Egypt.

    excavation Noun

    area that has been dug up or exposed for study.

    geographic information system (GIS) Noun

    any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)
    light wave Noun

    electromagnetic radiation visible to the human eye. Also called visible light.

    mapping Noun

    making and using maps.

    remote sensing Noun

    methods of information-gathering about the Earth's surface from a distance.

    satellite imagery Noun

    photographs of a planet taken by or from a satellite.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    visible light spectrum Noun

    light and colors that can be seen by human beings.

    wavelength Noun

    the distance between the crests of two waves.

Funder

This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-0840250. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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