Space Archaeologist Wins Top $1 Million TED Prize

Sarah Parcek wants to save some of the world's most important archaeology — from space. . (Photo:

If you were lucky enough to visit the Egyptian Museum in Cairo pre-2011, you would likely have been in awe of its collections. (I certainly was.) It's a museum that's right out your childhood imagination, packed to the gills with antiquities (there's a whole room dedicated just to cat mummies), artifacts and dusty objects pulled from tombs, most of them unlabeled, many not even behind glass. In 2011, more than a dozen pieces went missing after the museum was looted during riots in the city, and other cities in Egypt have lost even more antiquities during unrest there.

Some of the things I saw in Cairo in my 20s, I'll never be able to see again — they're lost forever, a crime against the history of the country.

But don't take my word for how bad these losses have been: Sarah Parcak, a Yale-trained archaeologist has said, "The last four and half years have been horrific for archaeology," due to those types of losses, and not just in Egypt, but throughout the Middle East. Thousands of objects, and the knowledge and stories they contain, have been lost.

Parcak just won the TED Prize for 2016 for her work to locate and protect these ancient sites — by tracking them from space, using satellites. Sound far-fetched? It's effective; she's already helped locate "...17 potential pyramids, plus 1,000 forgotten tombs and 3,100 unknown settlements. And that’s in addition to her discoveries throughout the Roman Empire," according to the TED site.

Known as the tech-y Indiana Jones (her Twitter handle is @IndyFromSpace), she's a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she founded the Laboratory for Global Observation.

Parcak's grandfather introduced her to aerial photography through his forestry work when she was a young girl in Maine, and when she was studying Egyptology at Yale, she utilized that perspective, but went bigger — using satellite technology to explore what was happening on the ground near sites that interested her. During graduate studies at Oxford, she pioneered a technique that uses infrared detection to find previously unknown subsurface archaeological sites. You can see how that works in her short TED Talk above.

Now Parcak trains young Egyptian archaeologists to use her infrared technology, so searching for ancient sites isn't the hit-and-miss project that it has been over the past several hundred years.

Parcak has been given $1 million in prize monies by TED to make a big wish happen for her project. She will reveal exactly what that wish is — and how she'll use the money — at another TED conference in February 2016.

Parcak has her work cut out for her: ISIS is relentless in its efforts, destroying important ancient structures in Palmyra, Syria just last month.