Sarah Parcak on Archaeology from Space (Ep. 118)

What can new technology tell us about our ancient past?

What can new technology tell us about our ancient past? Archaeologist and remote sensing expert Sarah Parcak has used satellite imagery to discover over a dozen potential pyramids and thousands of tombs from ancient Egypt. A professor of anthropology and founding director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Sarah’s work combines technology, historical study, and cultural anthropology to advance discoveries about the past while navigating the political and ethical dilemmas that plague excavation work today.

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archaeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archaeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archaeologists, and more.

Watch the full conversation

Recorded February 25th, 2021

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I’m very happy to be chatting with Sarah Parcak. I think of her as the space archaeologist. She is a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has been a part of numerous television productions about archaeology, and I very much liked her book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past. Sarah, welcome.

SARAH PARCAK: Thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here.

COWEN: Let’s start with an easy question: 1200 BC — why was there a late Bronze Age collapse?

PARCAK: [laughs] That’s a great, great question. In 1200 BC, things were very similar to the way things are now. There were global climate issues that led to significant reductions in people’s ability to access resources. There were numerous wars, internal conflicts, a lot of pressure around migration. When you think about what’s happening today with the pandemic, and then so much that’s happening, things are not quite identical, but close.

Yes, it’s climate change, it’s social, political, and economic pressure, all combining together. I think of the work of my colleague, Professor Eric Cline, in his book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. I recommend that. I always like recommending my colleagues’ books as well, for who focused on this stuff.

COWEN: As an archaeologist, how is it you understand collapse? A lot of bad things happened. A lot of bad things are happening now, but right now, it seems we’ll lose a lot of lives — that’s terrible. We’ll lose a lot of GDP and jobs— that’s terrible, but we’re probably not going to collapse. What is it that induces collapse? And how much do we know about that from an archaeological point of view?

PARCAK: This is something I think a lot about and actually is the subject of a book that I’m working on right now. When we say collapse, we think of post-apocalyptic, whether it’s a zombie movie or Mad Max— visions of bearded men riding around in the desert with cars with flames coming out of them, fighting over scant resources. Civilization is gone. But we really have to deconstruct that particular framing and terminology. What does it mean when you say collapse? Who are you trying to scare? When you really break it down, it’s collapse of what and for whom.

I think that when we say collapse, it’s systems collapse for the most elite of society. When we look back at the archaeological record, when we look at when diverse civilizations “collapsed” or had these systems break down — whether it’s multiple societies, civilizations in the late Bronze Age, whether it’s Egypt circa 2200 BC, which is the end of their great pyramid age. When you look at the Khmer civilization in Cambodia around 1000 AD — most of those cultures in some way, shape, or form still continued or continue to this day. Look at the Maya in Central America.

So we have to ask ourselves, what is collapsing? I prefer the word evolve. Evolution can be good or it can be bad, but we have to ask what survives and how, and what is collapsing now? What’s making people so uncomfortable? I think, ultimately, when we look at the past and we try to understand what’s going on, we can get a lot of lessons for today and what might survive.

On our understanding of ancient technologies

COWEN: How accurate do you think is our picture of available technologies in the late Bronze Age? How much do we know? How much do we not know? People discovered this computation mechanism from ancient Greece. No one expected that. Are we just totally in the dark, and we’re going to be shocked for the next few centuries? Or do we more or less have it right?

PARCAK: I think we’re going to be continuously amazed at what we find about the past. We assume we know so much about how pyramids were built, or how people in the past calculated time or distance, or their construction techniques. Now, with so many advances in our own abilities to interpret the past — whether it’s through infrared scanning technologies we’re able to read burnt scrolls from places like Herculaneum. Whether it’s new and far more accurate dating techniques.

Whether it’s new DNA studies where we’re able to understand not just that, okay, this group of mummies that was excavated in Egypt 100 years ago, we know that they’re royal. Now we know how they are related to each other. I think, with our own application of physics and chemistry and biology and computation machine learning — putting all these new tools to use, looking at the past, we’re far better able to understand all of their diverse technologies.

Of course, we only ever uncover a thousandth of a percent, a teeny tiny fraction of a percent of all that comes from the past. What was left, what was melted down, what was traded, what was repurposed. I think, and I think my colleagues would agree, we are in a golden age of archaeological discovery right now. Look at all these amazing headlines that we keep seeing in the paper. We’re going to see some of the most incredible archaeological discoveries ever found in the next few decades.

COWEN: How were the great pyramids built, now that you bring it up?

PARCAK: [laughs] A lot of person power, but also extraordinary engineering. When you stand in front of the pyramids today — of course, everyone thinks of the Great Pyramid of Giza, but there are over a hundred pyramids in Egypt. A lot of them don’t look like the pyramids of Giza — those are among the most well-preserved ones.

You stand there and you go, “Oh my gosh, these are hundreds of feet tall. There are millions of blocks. Each block weighs tons and tons. How is this even possible?” Even me as an Egyptologist — I visited them dozens of times. I still stand and am in awe when I see them for the first time every time I land in Egypt. They’re an extraordinary marvel.

But when you get really, really close, and you look at each individual block, you start seeing the hundreds and hundreds of little chisel marks, and you’re like, “Oh, it’s person power.”

In Egypt, for three to four months of the year in ancient Egypt, it was a time period when the Nile was flooded. There were a lot of people all over Egypt who were idling, not really doing very much, so the pharaoh organized a massive state work project. The pyramids were not built by slaves. There was a professional workforce, but you also needed a lot of very strong younger men to help move the blocks.

For the ancient Egyptians, it was service work. It was like, I guess, an ancient WPA and a national works project. For them to go — you’re serving your pharaoh, but also, you’re getting choice cuts of beef. You’re living very well. You’re eating well, you’re drinking well. In essence, you’re paid, and you get to go back to your village and brag that you helped to build them.

They were moved by large numbers of people, and they would compete against each other, actually. We have inscriptions inside the pyramids that make reference to the “‘Drunkards of Menkaure.” It was like an ancient sports team. They would compete against each other to move blocks. They moved them up ramps. We don’t know exactly, exactly how they were built. Was it a ramp mechanism around the exterior? Was it a ramp mechanism that was just straight up and they put blocks up on one side?

We do have multiple ramps that are still in situ, so we have a pretty good sense of how they were built, and of course, construction changed over time. As we apply new science, new scanning tools and technologies, we’re just going to continue to learn more. But they were built by amazing engineers and architects and by a lot of people, tens of thousands of people.

COWEN: As you must know, last year, more than a hundred intact coffins were discovered at the site of Saqqara. What are we likely to learn from those? Or what kinds of questions will be answered as that investigation proceeds?

PARCAK: Right. That’s work that’s ongoing by my esteemed colleagues at Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. What’s always amazing when you find these large corpuses, these large groups of coffins that are buried together, is we learn an amazing amount about daily life.

It seems, based on a lot of the initial work that I’ve seen — and I was very lucky — one of my last trips before the pandemic started was going to Egypt for meetings with my colleagues, and a number of these coffins were on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, so I got to see them and read some of the inscriptions, and they’re just absolutely stunning.

It seems like it was a burial for priests who were living and working around Saqqara. They dated to roughly 3,000 years ago, 2,500 years ago, this post–New Kingdom imperial age, into the Ptolemaic period, so a little bit later in time.

We’re going to learn about religious practices, about their relationships. I’m sure a lot of the mummies and coffins will end up getting CAT scans, so we’ll be able to learn about disease and how old were they when they died? What was their diet like? Were they eating better than the average population, these mostly men in their — I don’t know — 50s, 60s? Were there women? Are there women that are buried there? Are they related to each other?

We’re able to really get a much better picture about religion and the types of people that would’ve worked in temples. There’s a lot we can get from them.

On ancient beliefs

COWEN: What were the functions of grave goods in those worlds? They seem wasteful, obviously. You’re burying valuable wealth. We don’t do too much of that. Why do it at all if you’re not a wealthy society?

PARCAK: You want to prepare the body and the soul for eternity, and you want to make sure that you equip the people being buried with enough items to get them through the afterlife. Because for the ancient Egyptians, death was really the beginning. It was your entrée into eternity, and so, of course, you’d need things like a bed and linen and food and jewelry. And you would have been buried with hundreds of little shabtis, these little work figures that would have worked for you in the afterlife.

You needed these grave goods to essentially allow you to keep living your life after death, and in particular, if you were a wealthy person, from the time you were a young adult, you would have begun preparing your burial. Only the most wealthy, most elite could afford very high-end tombs. Most people would have been buried in simple graves, maybe cut shallowly into the bedrock or in sand.

It’s interesting, the archaeological site where I work at Lisht, which dates to about 3,800 years ago, 1800 BC, we find a full range of burials — everything from the most elite down to probably lower, lower-middle-class burials, and even the lower-middle-class individuals still would have been buried with something. It was to prepare you for the afterlife.

COWEN: Do we think people back then actually believed that? You could find a lot of textual evidence that today’s burial practices are for the next world, but in most societies, especially men — they’re not so religious. They’re fairly skeptical. They might just think when you die, you die, and there’s a societal puffery surrounding death rituals, but what people actually believe is something different. Is there a more cynical way to think about grave goods?

PARCAK: For the ancient Egyptians, this is what they believed. It’s really hard, and I teach this in a lot of my archaeology classes and talk about this when I give lectures. We’re all so biased, and we’re all in such modern mindsets about religion. Even really religious people — you roll your eyes sometimes. You’re like, “Really? Because you’re not acting like that.”

But for the ancient Egyptians, their religion was their entire worldview. It’s how they interacted with their world. The wind wasn’t the wind. It was the god Shu touching them. The Nile wasn’t the Nile. It was the god Hapi. So, if we think of their religion, in some ways, as their science and how they understood the changes in the world around them, I think that’s how we can better understand why they did what they did and why they believed what they believed.

They believed this stuff, and so for them, they genuinely believed that when they died, these things, or the spirits within these things, would accompany them to the afterlife. It wasn’t just about building a tomb and putting goods in it. That was just one step.

You needed to make sure that during your life, you married and you had children so that, in particular, your sons could carry on rituals. They could carry on making offerings to your spirit in the afterlife. That was really important, so for a lot of these tombs, especially at sites like Lisht, we find shrines so people could come. Think of it like a Mexican Day of the Dead. Your family could come and picnic and make offerings. That was just as important as the grave goods.

COWEN: What is the least crazy version of the Atlantis myth I might plausibly believe in?

PARCAK: [laughs] Isn’t there an Atlantis in the Bahamas? That’s about the least crazy one.

Atlantis was a myth. It was invented by Plato. It was meant to serve as a lesson. If you read the text in that way, he’s trying to pass on a lesson to his students. Look at this immoral society. Look at what could have happened now.

It was probably loosely based on Santorini. Plato certainly would have been aware of Santorini and what happened with the eruption, so I think you could loosely say, yes, it’s Santorini-ish. The site of Akrotiri, this great volcanic explosion that impacted the archaeology of not just that island and Thera, but the whole region.

Yes, people are looking for it, but I keep telling people, “You need to stop. It doesn’t really exist. It’s just a figment of someone’s imagination.”

On new discoveries

COWEN: It seems we now know that the Polynesians in South America had contact, at least in one direction, possibly about a thousand years ago. Given that fact, how far do you think the Phoenicians were able to go?

PARCAK: Yes, more and more constantly, it gets being discovered about how far afield people traveled. The Phoenicians were extraordinary sailors and had amazing shipbuilding techniques, but I think we can frame this in terms of, how far were ancient peoples able to go? Again, using all of these new tools and technologies and techniques, we keep finding archaeological evidence for all of this amazing, long-distance trade that goes back to 3000 BC, so 5,000 years ago or more, but certainly, all over the Mediterranean.

It’s amazing to think that, for example, in the time of Cleopatra, there was contact between Egypt and India. We know this because there are archaeological sites along the Red Sea coast, in particular the site of Berenike, where we know for sure, there’s archaeological evidence of this long-distance trade. Certainly, as more and more tools and techniques and technologies keep being applied, we’re going to find out more about how far people were able to go. The Phoenicians did not make it all the way to America, [laughs] that definitely did not happen —

COWEN: Why say “definitely”? Look, the Pacific is big, right? The Atlantic seems like a hop, skip, and a jump. Why couldn’t they have made it to Mexico?

PARCAK: [laughs] Who knows? Who knows? There’s not been nothing found.

For example, I’ve dipped my toe in the Viking world, and I certainly think over time, we are going to find more evidence for the Vikings, certainly. I think they made it down to New England. I don’t think that’s too implausible. They weren’t that far away in Newfoundland. Also, we have evidence of a Viking coin that was found at a site in Maine. Did it mean that the Vikings made it to Maine? Could it have been long-distance trade? Who knows? I certainly think they would have explored.

Yes, the Phoenicians, certainly very well known for sailing around the Mediterranean, but how far they actually got — that just depends on the archaeological data.

COWEN: The chance of significant new copies of manuscripts being unearthed — what kinds of things might we be likely to find in the next 20 years?

PARCAK: Getting back to what I said before about new scanning tools and technologies and infrared, being able to read burnt scrolls. There have been so many, of course, manuscripts lost over time to things like fire. I think a lot about what was lost at the library of Alexandria, but also, so many manuscripts are palimpsests. In other words, they have these ancient texts on them, and then the ancient scribes would have erased them or scraped away the old texts, or they would have been faded, and they wrote new texts on top of them.

There’s a lot of papyrus, a lot of scrolls that were reused over time, and through this scanning, we’re able to see new sections of stories, or maybe stories from the Bible or older versions of stories from the Bible. Also, there are massive, massive manuscript collections in Iraq, in Syria and Afghanistan, in Egypt and so many other places that have never been fully examined. There are hundreds of thousands, millions of manuscripts from these places, and people are archivists, and they go, they study them and they scan them.

These have not been digitized. It’s one of the urgent, urgent projects because so many of these manuscript collections were burned by entities like ISIL. Alongside the archaeological discoveries we make in the ground, which in some cases may include manuscripts, I think one of the great unexplored treasure troves of the world are these manuscript archives where who knows what we’ll find there?

On the need for conservation

COWEN: What do you think is the greatest archaeological mistake of, say, the last 100 years? Something we touched and should have left alone.

PARCAK: That is a wonderful question. Wow, no one’s ever asked me that before. What is the greatest archaeological mistake? That’s a hard question because there have been a lot of mistakes. I don’t know about the biggest mistake. I have my own personal opinion, but I don’t speak on behalf of my colleagues for this one.

I think when archaeologists go into the field, they don’t pair conservation alongside excavation. In other words, they’ll dig, and then whatever they’ve excavated, they won’t protect, or they won’t solidify, or they won’t take the necessary steps to make sure that whatever they’ve excavated — and this isn’t in every case, by the way, but in a lot of cases, and especially from 100 years ago and up to maybe 25 years ago when this wasn’t as much of a priority — these things were left exposed to the elements, so a lot of these amazing discoveries from a long time ago are exposed to the elements.

You look at archaeological sites like Pompeii, where the ministry in Italy responsible for its conservation — they’ve been chronically underfunded. I’ve heard there are potential connections to Mafia, lots of corruption. A lot of these amazing houses are almost falling down. I think conservation and protecting sites needs to be funded as much as new discoveries. And it’s not just Italy — this is an issue all over the world.

COWEN: As you know, in places such as Luxor, often people who live there — they’ll build homes on top of elite tombs. What should archaeologists do about that? Just leave it alone? Try to move the people out? Is there a way to deal with the people who are living there that is a fair bargaining position, given that the government might be on your side rather than theirs?

PARCAK: That’s a really interesting question. On the screen behind me right now — I don’t know if there will end up being a screenshot of it, and I’m happy to share the image so you can post it on your website— this is Lisht, and you see behind me, we’re standing on an almost 4,000-year-old cemetery, but we have the modern cemetery right behind us. Archaeological sites are living places more often than not. It’s not like they were abandoned thousands of years ago or hundreds of years ago, and people are gone.

The local communities living on these sites or next to them are essential. Community archaeology is a really, really important part of the field of archaeology. First and foremost, when we excavate in the field, we’re anthropologists. We’re cultural anthropologists, so you have to speak the local language. I speak Arabic. I’m not completely fluent, but I know enough. I’m certainly fluent in Egyptian culture. All my workforce is Egyptian.

My core staff — it’s a joint mission with the Ministry of Antiquities, so it means that I have an Egyptian co-director, and you have to have really close working relationships with local villagers because, ultimately, they’re the ones who are the stewards and guardians of these sites, and they’ve, in many cases, never had a chance to connect with these places, and there’s a lot of economic opportunity there, so I think we have to tread very carefully.

In a lot of instances, the people who are living on or next to sites are related to the people who lived there thousands of years ago. As inconvenient as it might be that their houses are there, these are human beings, and they’ve lived in these places for a very, very long time. How do you deal with these situations sensitively? We’re having a lot of really difficult conversations right now.

Certainly, in Egypt and Luxor and the village that was on top of a lot of the tombs of the New Kingdom — the Egyptian government basically evicted the folks who were living there. A lot of the tombs had been damaged, and now they’re conserving the tombs. That’s a decision that the Ministry of Antiquities in the Egyptian government made. There were a lot of protests. I’m not in a position, I feel like, to criticize what they did. It happened. That was a decision they made. They felt it was best for their own heritage, and we have to listen very carefully to foreign governments in places where we work.

Yes, this is a problem all over the world. What do we do? Do you just evict families with kids? And these communities — that’s the other important thing. These are communities, and they’re not all stealing from these sites. They just happen to live there. This is a big question, one that I think we’ll be dealing with for the next hundred or more years.

On looting

COWEN: Which do you think is a bigger threat to archaeological sites — economic development or looting?

PARCAK: Economic development. A lot of people look at looting and they think, “Oh, it’s looting, you’re stealing from sites. All these sites are threatened.” Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but looting has been going on for thousands of years. We have potsherds from 5,000 years ago in Egypt that were worn down from people digging out tombs of the earliest wealthy burials. People have been stealing from tombs for a very long time. It’s part of the human condition.

I would say economic development and encroachment. It’s not particularly sexy at all. It bores people. People want to hear stories of looting because encroachment is much more difficult. If you look at archaeological sites in Egypt, in Peru, in China, in India — all over the world — there simply aren’t as many places for people to live, and so a big open site . . . Or maybe their village is close by, and it’s easy to expand. The other issue, of course, is where do you bury your dead? A lot of governments don’t have good plans for that, so of course, they encroach upon these sites.

There’s unchecked development around the world. Certainly, in places like Central Asia, this is a huge problem. With new pipelines being put in, with cities expanding — and in so many cases, there’s not good documentation of archaeological sites. I’d say encroachment and economic development. And why do we need to grow 10 percent or 20 percent every year? This ties into much greater questions around globalization and global development.

COWEN: Given that looting protects collectible goods, and at least sometimes — depends who loots — but it puts the goods into the hands of collectors who have a profit incentive to take care of them. How should we think about what is the optimum degree of looting? Because if there’s no looting, development might destroy the site.

PARCAK: Right. Of course, there’s never any optimum degree of looting. Ideally, there would be hardly any looting.

COWEN: But given the constraints we face, right?

PARCAK: Right, right. I’ve talked a lot to the villagers that work at Lisht because many of them were involved — not just them, but the people from the surrounding area — they were involved in looting post–Arab Spring, so in 2011. And I’ve learned a lot about who loots and why they loot and when they loot.

You have to think of archaeological sites in some ways like community piggy banks. It’s not like local people are out digging every day, robbing the site down to nothing. They’ll tap it every now and then. Someone needs surgery, someone needs to go to school. It’s like a gig income.

Post–Arab Spring, the village or villagers would organize into collective groups, and not just there — all over Egypt. This is how things work across the Middle East. They’d organize collectively. They’d go loot a tomb. They’ll find whatever they find, and then they’ll split the proceeds.

That’s a very different kind of looting than someone comes from Cairo via a dealer in Jordan, via a dealer in Dubai, via a dealer in Paris or a dealer in New York, and they’ve specifically said, “We want X, Y, and Z objects from these types of sites.” Someone will come to the village and say, “I will pay each of you $20 a night to go loot.” That’s very different. They work much faster. It’s very dangerous. They could loot a tomb in a night, and these are people that dig down 40 or 50 feet into a shaft tomb.

Again, we have to understand the kinds of looting that are happening in different places in the world. People loot because they need money. It’s not a black or a white issue. Villagers aren’t getting rich off of this stuff. It’s the collectors; it’s the middlemen. It’s much bigger questions around shutting down trade and understanding networks. It’s very similar to the international wildlife trade or gunrunning or money laundering. It’s all connected.

COWEN: I once did fieldwork on other issues in a small Mexican village, very rural. They had a small Aztec pyramid in the center of town. One year they decided to knock that down and just put up a modern, small municipal building.

They seemed really quite unsentimental about that decision. If anything, there was a slight fear that if they kept the pyramid around, it might attract interest from the outside world, which they didn’t want, viewing the outside Mexican police and governance as forces that would take resources from them. Should I have tried to talk them out of that decision? Or should I have just been gung ho? “Yes, sorry, all you people, but this is the best thing for you to do.”

PARCAK: This is really difficult. These are issues that we contend with all the time in the field, whether we’re anthropologists or political scientists or archaeologists. Any time we’re doing work in a foreign area, to what extent do you intervene when you see things that are problematic going on?

For example, with all the work I’ve done with mapping looting around archaeological sites in Egypt — I’ve shared all that information with the government of Egypt, and at that point, I’m done. I can advocate. I can try to be an ally. I can try to talk to them about best practices or things to be thinking about. But ultimately, it’s the governments in these places that are responsible for protecting the sites — or not.

There is, as you know, massive corruption around the world, and if a wealthy local landowner wanted that plaza or that pyramid to build whatever, and they pay a bribe of $1,000 or $10,000 or whatever it is, that thing’s gone. We have to look at the incentives around who’s paying for destruction to happen and the value of that thing in the community.

Flip it around. There have been a lot of instances where archaeological sites all over the world have been threatened — or cultural sites — and the local communities have risen up and protested and protected the site.

I think this is more about empowering local communities and getting them to understand that they’re the stewards. They’re the guardians because in so many countries there aren’t enough archaeologists, right? The arts and culture are chronically underfunded all around the world. They’re only a fraction of a percent of most countries’ budgets, so people feel disconnected from their history. How do we change the global dialogue around the value of archaeology and history, and empower communities to want to protect their histories and show them how they’re connected to it?

On the inherent political entanglements in archeology

COWEN: How should archaeologists think about the political uses that their work is put by, especially, foreign autocratic governments? As you know, foreign autocratic governments use the past to legitimize their present. Now, because the past typically was not democratic, there’s some grand and glorious history. What is dug up from the past is used to justify the present, which can be quite oppressive.

If one is an archaeologist, helping to dig up that past, should you seek in any way to control either the goods or the message of how those outputs are then translated into arguments about the current day?

PARCAK: It’s a great question. I joke with people who say, “Well, would you ever be interested in going into politics?” I say, “All the skeletons in my closet are real. [laughs] No thank you.” Yet, archaeology is inherently political by its very nature, right? Any time you contend with the past, interpreting how that past impacts who we are today.

Just a very recent example from the January 6th insurrection, we saw people dressed up as Viking-esque, indigenous cosplayers. Symbols from the Vikings and from the classical world have been co-opted by far-right extremist groups for years and years and years.

We see it here in our own country, certainly around the world — concepts of ownership. Who came to a place first? Who has the right to be living in this place? Governments will use discoveries from archaeological sites to prove that “Oh, we’re older. We’re better.” Or “This particular religious group was here first. Hence, we have a right to commit these atrocities or erase these peoples.”

We see this everywhere. We see this all over the world. Oftentimes, archaeologists will find themselves caught up in political controversies, and they’re like, “Hey, I’m just digging up the site. Why are you bothering me?”

Look at what’s happened in England. In the last few days, the government’s come out with a very strong statement against academics and museums, saying, “You can’t erase our glorious past.” And everyone is saying, “Wait a minute, our past is problematic. We teach about who we are because we were founded on these colonialist ideals.” You can’t just erase what happened, and yet we’re having these dialogues.

Yes, this is a huge issue everywhere we work, and we have to be careful because I and my colleagues only are able to work in these places because of the permits and permissions from these governments. While I may have very strong feelings about things that are happening in particular places, if I speak out against them or take a side, then that government will say, “See you later.”

So we’re always balancing good versus harm. What is the good that I can do by continuing my work in this place, to be an advocate for heritage, and to educate and empower all these local communities and all these people? Because they’re the ones ultimately that are going to be the stewards. I’ll lose my power to do that if I say something.

So empowering in itself, and training and educating and doing the outreach — that’s the radical work of what we do. Ultimately, it’s up to the people who live in these places. But yes, this is a real thorny issue and one we’re going to be hearing about again and again, of course, with the rise of nationalism around the world.

COWEN: Do you have any suggestions for how we might improve intellectual property rights or just property rights that govern excavations? You might be excavating on private property. It could be corporate property. It could be controlled by the state. Who has the rights to what?

Say you’ve discovered natural resources while you’re doing a satellite search. There could be a national security issue. Are we getting that right, currently? Or is there some way we could improve the allocation of those rights?

PARCAK: I’ve learned a lot the hard way with all of my work. I’ve worked in 14 or 15 countries to date. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. It’s always a learning process, and it’s always a process of negotiation.

First of all, when you ask for permission to work in a place you’re negotiating, “Okay, I’d like to do things A through G.” The government may turn around and “Okay, you can do A through D, and if you do them well, you can do E and F next year. Don’t even ever think about G — or maybe in the future.” There’s a negotiation to even do the work and process the fines or dig or survey or map or whatever you’re proposing to do.

You’re also negotiating with your colleagues over rights to publish. You certainly have the right to publish your research, but ultimately, who owns that data? Just as an example, in Egypt, it is illegal for a foreigner working in Egypt to make a major announcement about their discovery. The Egyptian government is the one that has to make that announcement.

Now, obviously you can show pictures from your sites — that’s fine. You can show ongoing pictures of work. But if you do make a major discovery of a tomb, the government of Egypt has that right. Of course they do. This is their heritage. And the rules are similar in other places. We have to respect the laws. Otherwise, we won’t get the ability to work.

But sometimes you do end up making an amazing discovery randomly. Years and years ago, when we were doing survey work in Sinai, we ended up finding a dinosaur. I always get asked, “Oh, archaeologists — don’t you do dinosaurs?” I’m like, “No, but actually yes, kind of.” [laughs] That was wild. Who finds a dinosaur? It was actually a mosasaur. I think my eight-year-old son could tell you much more about the mosasaur than I could. I don’t really do dinosaurs. Apologies to my colleagues who are listening right now who do.

Of course, we turned over that information immediately to the local university, and we let the government know. You can make unexpected finds. You just have to follow the rules in that country. Yeah, a lot of issues now around intellectual property at universities. Who owns this data? How is it being used? Is it being monetized? Again, these are complicated questions.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: There’s now a segment in most of these chats called overrated versus underrated. I’ll toss out some notions and names, and you tell me if you think they’re overrated or underrated, okay? Herodotus.

PARCAK: Overrated.


PARCAK: He liked to make up a lot of stories. To me, he’s like your slightly drunk uncle at Thanksgiving. You’re like, “Oh God, Uncle Herodotus again.” You can believe a grain of what he says, and you have to like, “How much is the truth really?” I rely on the archaeology, not as much with Herodotus. Apologies to my classical colleagues.

COWEN: Egyptian cuisine — overrated or underrated?

PARCAK: Underrated. It’s amazing. They use all of these extraordinary, fresh, local ingredients. They have the most incredible tomatoes in the whole world. They taste of magic and sunshine. Eggplant, potatoes, onions, garlic, buffalo, lamb, beef.

The stews and the most amazing rosewater-infused pastries — I am getting hangry right now, thinking about it. We get our food at Lisht made by these amazing local women, and my dig team complains because they always put on weight, the food is so good. Totally underrated. Anyone listening, go to your local Egyptian restaurant. You will thank me.

COWEN: Don’t forget the seafood in Alexandria, by the way.

PARCAK: Of course, amazing, amazing

COWEN: Harrison Ford — overrated or underrated?

PARCAK: I am super biased. I think Harrison gets the exact amount of credit he deserves. I guess neither. I had the chance to meet him a few years ago at a TED conference. He was an absolutely delightful, delightful human being and very kind and very generous. I don’t want to say overrated or underrated. I think he’s very much appreciated

COWEN: What’s your favorite Harrison Ford movie?

PARCAK: First Indiana Jones, as problematic as I know it is. I know, I know, I know, but I can’t help it. Like so many archaeologists who are in their 40s and 50s, that’s one of the things that inspired me to go into the field. Definitely the first Indy movie.

COWEN: The recent British movie, The Dig, about archaeologists — overrated or underrated?

PARCAK: It’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. I know some of my colleagues have critiqued it, but it was so beautifully done. I’m a huge Ralph Fiennes fan. I think he’s gorgeous, but the gruff everyman — this is his obsession. It’s what he’s good at — the care with which he digs, the passion.

Even the scene at the end where they’re all backfilling — they got it right. They really got it right. It shows what a dig is like, and also all the drama that happens around an excavation season. Not necessarily in the backdrop of war — that’s not how we always dig, but certainly, the relationships, the complexities, how people are interacting with each other, the pressures from local authorities.

I think it’s one of the best archaeology movies that’s ever been done. If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely go see it. It’s done pretty well rating-wise, but I think underrated in the sense that not enough people know about it yet.

COWEN: Who is your favorite bluegrass guitarist?

PARCAK: Oh boy, oh man, that is —

COWEN: For me, it’s Clarence White, but I’ve spent too much time with Paul Romer.

PARCAK: Oh gosh, I have so many. Boy, I don’t want to name one. I’m a huge fan of — even though he plays the banjo, not bluegrass guitar, but I love Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Full disclosure: they’re friends of mine, so I think they’re brilliant, brilliant. They’re playing some of the best bluegrass in the world today. I love their joint albums, and I’ve had a chance to hear them up close playing, and it’s magic.

COWEN: I’ve seen them twice. Loved it, would second the recommendation.

How is it that you came to work on eastern equine encephalitis?

PARCAK: [laughs] Oh yes, of all the things I’ve done, that may be one of the most random, although not the most random. My university, University of Alabama at Birmingham, is pretty well known for its medical school. So we’ve got top 20, 25 schools of public health, medicine, nursing. One of the things that the university encourages — although it certainly doesn’t force — they encourage their faculty on my side of campus, which is the College of Arts and Sciences, to collaborate with people working in the medical school.

I can’t remember — I feel like it was a long time ago, 12 years ago or so — there were some people who moved to UAB from another institution. They were specialists in the application of satellite imagery to mapping ancient diseases. I started working with them on projects. Also, at the time, I was running a remote sensing lab, and I was mentoring and working with a number of PhD and master’s students from the School of Public Health, some from the School of Dentistry, some from biology.

They were interested in looking at environmental aspects impacting modern diseases. So I collaborated with this team and looked at vegetation and how landscape changes over time — to your point earlier about economic development — on how changes to landscapes from growing populations impacted the growth of diseases and things like zoonoses, whether mosquitoes or other animals, that can pass on diseases, which of course we’re seeing today with the pandemic.

That’s how I ended up on a couple of public health publications, because of my remote sensing work. Obviously you can’t zoom in from hundreds of miles in space and see mosquitoes. That is ridiculous. Although, who knows? Maybe someday, we will be. But you can see things like changes in water temperature, turbidity, vegetation, changes to chemicals and fertilizers that are being used on those water sources. You can study rates of things like malaria or other diseases and compare it to changes you’re seeing in the landscape.

On touring Egypt and archeological sites around the world

COWEN: Let’s say you’re walking around Cairo. You have a day off — and I know you probably never do — but you’re playing tourist for a day. You’re not at an archaeological site. How is it you think you take in Cairo differently, compared to another educated person who doesn’t do archaeology?

PARCAK: I’ve worked in Egypt now for more than 20 years. To me, it’s another home. It’s our second home. It’s where I met my husband. He’s not Egyptian. He’s Canadian and British, but we have a lot of very close Egyptian friends. They’re our family. If I had a day off in Cairo and I wasn’t taking students around archaeological sites or not going to museums — generally, depends on where I am, I guess. If I was in Luxor or Cairo, it would be a little bit different.

I love bird watching. I’m a bird nerd, so I love going off into more vegetated areas with my binoculars. Certainly, going on the Nile — it’s much easier in Luxor and Aswan. There are obviously far less people. Early in the morning, I’ll go bird watching. It’s very peaceful. You see extraordinary types of birds.

I love spending time in cafes with my Egyptian friends because you get to see the world go by. There are a couple of really famous cafes in the Khan el-Khalili market, which is the big tourist market that everyone goes to to buy their touristry schlock. There are a couple of cafes, and you go and sit, and you drink your mint tea. You smoke a shisha. I don’t smoke except in Egypt. I love the bubbly pipes. My husband and mother are horrified that I do this in Egypt, but I can’t help it. It’s one of my little enjoyments.

You just watch the world go by. You see every kind of person you can imagine. People come up and try to sell you things. You see crazy things. You have great conversation with your friends. Maybe you catch a game of backgammon, and you gossip. That’s incredibly pleasant.

As I mentioned before, I love Egyptian food. There are some of my favorite restaurants in different parts of Cairo. I’ll go out with my friends, and we’ll have an incredible meal. The lovely thing about Egyptian food is that it’s communal, so you’ll order maybe 15 or 20 different dishes. You’ll all have bites. You’re all trying things. You’re putting things together. It’s a lot of fun. It’s like tapas.

I love also music. You alluded to bluegrass guitar. I play guitar. I love Egyptian music. There’s this wonderful instrument called an oud, like a short, squat stringed instrument. I love going to concerts if there are concerts on at diverse locations. Egyptian singers are wonderful.

Also, I love sailing on the Nile, so we’ll sometimes take a felucca or a boat. Their dinner boats, especially in places like Luxor at night — it’s beautiful. I do a lot of non-touristy things.

Also, there are amazing museums in Cairo that are not archaeological. There are wonderful galleries that just display work by wonderful Egyptian modern artists, and I love going to those as well.

COWEN: Let’s say I have the ability to take a month off work and enough money to fly anywhere you send me. I just want to see archaeological sites. Purely subjective from you, what tour do you design for me? Where do you send me? Egypt aside. We know that’s your first love.

PARCAK: A month. You can probably, depending on travel, and you want to be able to take places in, so probably a couple of days at every place. Maybe you have time to see 10 things. You want to hit the highlights versus say, a themed tour. I’m very biased, having been to many places in the world.

I would say, certainly, going to Tikal in Guatemala. That’s unbelievable, and everyone who’s seen the third Star Wars movie, you see the little temple sticking out from around the rainforest, and it’s amazing because you have this extraordinary Mayan site, and then you’re surrounded by beautiful rain forest, so go there first.

Then fly down to Peru. You’ve got to see Machu Picchu. I had the chance to see it a couple of years ago for the first time. I wasn’t prepared. I’d seen pictures. My colleagues have told me about it, but the breathtaking awed majesty of where it’s situated, and just the fact that the world drops away around it, and it’s surrounded by mountains, and there’s this beautiful little town that the Inca built on top of a mountain. It’s mind-blowing.

I would say Stonehenge at solstice just because it’s worth seeing all the monks and everyone dressed up and the festivities. You get a sense of how that place would have been honored in antiquity, and it’s beautiful. Definitely Stonehenge. I would say you’ve got to hit Pompei and Herculaneum just because they’re so well preserved, and it’s like you are walking around an old European village or town, and you just get a sense of how people lived.

I would say — and this is going to jump around a bit geographically as I try to pick the top, top places — I would say Angkor Wat. It’s the only place I visited in the world, aside from the Vatican, where I got so overwhelmed, I had to sit and take a nap in situ because my eyes hurt. There was too much for me to take in. At Angkor, it’s not just one temple — it’s dozens and dozens of temples, and the Khmer — they carved every square inch of their temples with images of gods and goddesses and religious scenes. You don’t know where to look. Everywhere you look is a perfect picture. So definitely Angkor and, obviously, the food and the culture as well.

The terracotta warriors of Xi’an. I cried when I visited them for the first time. It’s so overwhelming to be there. I was there with a group of archaeologists, and we all just stood. There’s an energy to this place. I’m a scientist. I don’t believe in crystal goddesses and energy fields and all that stuff. But there was such a presence to that place that I haven’t felt anywhere else in the world. We just stood for a half hour, unable to speak because it was so overwhelming.

I’ve never been to Easter Island, although that’s next. As soon as the pandemic is over, we are going to Easter Island. I have colleagues that work there, and we’re trading out a trip to Egypt for a trip to Easter Island. Definitely hit Easter Island as well. It’s beautiful and amazing. I think that would probably take care of your month.

COWEN: That would take care of the month.

On pioneering technology

Now you’re a pioneer with technology. Let me mention just a few technologies. Tell me briefly what they are good for in archaeology. Google Earth.

PARCAK: Google Earth is wonderful because it’s a free resource. We like “free” in archaeology. There isn’t as much grant money now, and you can zoom in for virtually any archaeological site in the world and for a very high-resolution image. A resolution of two feet, 50 centimeters or lower, and you can see so much.

You can scan back and forth. You can look at different times of year. Features will pop up. There’ve been thousands of discoveries made using Google Earth alone. It’s a great starting point for looking at archaeological sites and the landscape surrounding them.

COWEN: Ground-penetrating radar.

PARCAK: In places like Egypt, in so many desert locations, of course, you walk over an archaeological site, and it’s a little bumpy, but you don’t know what’s going on beneath it. We use things like ground-penetrating radar to get these multiple levels of feedback and readings. We’re able to reconstruct, with a high degree of certainty, where there are buried walls and other features so that we can far better target our excavation work. In essence, in some cases, get a map of almost everything that’s there.

COWEN: Lidar.

PARCAK: That stands for light detection and ranging. In places like Cambodia, the Khmer, Angkor Wat, the Maya or Central America, South America — of course, we can’t see through trees. What the lidar does is, it allows you to fly — whether it’s an unmanned aerial vehicle, a helicopter, or airplane — it’s a sensor system that allows you to send down thousands, millions of pulse beams of lasers where you can remove the overlaying vegetation, and you’re left with what’s called a bare-earth model or a digital elevation model.

You can, in effect, see everything that’s there. My colleagues have used this to find tens of thousands of new features and sites in Central America and Cambodia and many, many other places in the world. It’s the only way to see through trees.

COWEN: Do you worry that we’re now finding new sites more rapidly than we can protect them?

PARCAK: A hundred percent. There aren’t very many countries in the world that have a good sense of their own archaeological inventories. England is one, Israel is one. Other countries have inventories, but you look at it, and you’re like, “Wait a minute, you’re a huge country. You only have 2,000 sites in your inventory? That’s not right.” Because the people who live there or work there don’t have training in remote sensing. They don’t have training in how to manage all of these sites and features.

Of course, we worry that this information is going to get out and going to get in the hands of people who could potentially misuse it. A hundred percent yes, we definitely are finding things way faster than we can protect them. That’s why archaeologists will often sit on their data because they don’t know what to do with it.

COWEN: Who should own that data?

PARCAK: That’s another thorny issue. Who owns archaeological data? What happens when you turn over all your data to a government in good faith, but they don’t even have the computers to store it? Or they do, but they have computers from 15 years ago? Someone in the office steals the data and puts it online. Who’s responsible then? Is it you for giving them the data? Or them because they didn’t have the right protection in place?

Governments — certainly Egypt — at the end of every season, we have to turn in a detailed report, a database of what we found. Of course, that’s how archaeology works there. Our colleagues at the Ministry of Antiquities are very well trained and are good at taking in this information, but it’s not necessarily that way everywhere in the world.

Who has the right to publish? Who has the right to be first author? One of the things I worked really hard on in Archaeology from Space is, a third of the archaeologists that are mentioned in the book are indigenous archaeologists, and almost half are women. I could’ve very easily cited the archaeological remote sensing work of white European or American or Canadian men. I was very intentional in how I did that.

The idea that we can’t make space for individuals who are brilliant young archaeologists in our publications — something my colleagues and I are working on because they may not have the resources or the capabilities to pay a journal fee. We need to be doing that for them. This goes beyond who owns the data, and it’s more, who are the people that get to be the storytellers? Who gets to be first author?

COWEN: What happened to Malaysian Air Flight 370?

PARCAK: I think it went down, unfortunately. A really sad story. I know everyone looked for it. They found some pieces of aircraft they thought might come from it. Maybe someday they’ll find it. I think it’s in a deep part of the ocean that they really have trouble accessing. Unfortunately, I think it went down. My colleagues who do work in aviation certainly have a lot of diverse theories. There was, unfortunately, some kind of malfunction, and it just went down. It happens sometimes. It’s awful.

On the modern-day skill requirements as an archeologist

COWEN: How much math and stats do you need to know to do your work?

PARCAK: A lot more and a lot less than I thought. Trigonometry is really, really, really important for archaeology.

COWEN: So, it’s important for something? Incredible.

PARCAK: Yes, it’s really important for some things. Calculus — no. No, no, no, no, no, not for the work that I do. Also, a lot of the computer programs I use — it’s like plug and play. You put in your numbers, and it spits out all the stats, so I don’t need to calculate them, but I do need to understand what they mean. This is really important. I think every archaeologist should take stats classes to understand median, mode, regression. What does it all mean?

We’ve all seen the funny memes online of the charts that look fancy but don’t mean anything, and anyone can interpret anything. Just because there’s data and there’s numbers, doesn’t mean that there’s a conclusion. [laughs] Sometimes there’s data, and it’s a mess. It’s important to know stats really, really well for the work that I do and my colleagues do.

For all the measuring that we do, for all of the angles for measuring when we’re measuring in points. Yes, of course, there’s all these wonderful GPSs where you just ping it in the ground and it measures it for you, but we do a lot of things the old-school way, and sometimes your batteries run out, so you have to know geometry and trigonometry to be able to calculate things.

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

PARCAK: I have to raise money. We’re always hustling, whether it’s government grants or raising money from private individuals. It’s more managing. It’s having enough of an understanding of all of these different subfields to know when someone’s really good at them. Whether I can look at a paper and go, “Okay, that person is really good at this.” Or go, “The paper’s worth citing.” Or, “They’re really talented. I would love to invite them to join our project because it would be wonderful to collaborate with them.”

Again, every archaeologist who directs a project is the same as me. I just happen to specialize in a form of technology. And by the way, I feel like I’m drowning constantly. I can’t keep up. There are so many new satellites and sensors and tools and techniques and new programs, I get overwhelmed. I’m a mom. I’m a busy professor. I have my students, so I’m constantly behind. But again, my colleagues would tell you the same thing.

COWEN: I think you said in one of your YouTube talks, there are only a few hundred space archaeologists. What’s the binding constraint? What stops there from being more?

PARCAK: I think the training. I trained for years and years, I took a lot of remote sensing classes, computational classes. I don’t program. I can’t code — that’s my line. I could have gone down that road. It was too much. It was way, way, way too much for me to do that. I would say it just takes a long time to learn, to get really good at it.

With the students I’ve mentored at my university — they do an introductory course, and then they do an advanced applications course. After about year of taking these courses and really intensely working in a lab environment, then and only then, the students start feeling comfortable doing project work on their own. It takes a year of intensive training.

This is one of the reasons I started my not-for-profit and our citizen archaeology platform because everyone is born an explorer. Everyone is good at using their eyes or understanding the environment around them and making observational or cueing observation.

This online citizen archaeology platform gives the world a chance to look at satellite images and help find sites and, ultimately, help scale the work that we’re doing. I want to turn as many people around the world into space archaeologists. It’s fun. They can do it. They’re really good at it. We need more eyes mapping these sites.

COWEN: What’s a typical email you get from somebody who has found something or maybe thinks they found something and haven’t? What do they write you?

PARCAK: It’s interesting. I get probably a couple emails a week from people. I would say it depends on where they’re from. That is a good barometer of the believability of what they find.

I would say that 100 percent of the emails I get from people in Scandinavia, whether it’s Denmark, Norway, or Sweden — in particular, Norway — people in Norway are really good at finding potential Viking ships in their fields. It’s wild, and they’re always very polite and respectful. I’m delighted to get emails like that. I’m delighted to get emails from people anyway. It’s just always fun to see what people find.

I’ve gotten a lot of really interesting findings from people in places like Italy. There’re so many villas of different periods of time that people find in fields or elsewhere.

I get a lot of emails from, let’s just say, interesting individuals who are from America’s heartland, who spend a lot of time looking for things of a biblical nature, and 100 percent of the time, they send me snapshots of rocks. “Here’s this amazing ship.” “Here’s the lost city of whatever in Israel,” or wherever. And you’re like, “You found some rocks, good job.” I don’t engage with them because it’s not always smart to do it.

But every now and then, I’ll get an email from someone who said, “Hey, I think I found something.” I’m like, “You actually did find something. I don’t have time to engage with you because my students come first, but yes, you found something.” I’d say half the time, it’s interesting, and half the time, it’s just part of the job.

COWEN: Last two questions. First, who was it that first recognized your talent in these areas?

PARCAK: That’s a great question. I think I’ve always been good at finding things. I don’t know if it’s because I’m just good at pattern recognition, but even when I was five, six, seven years old, I could go to a whole patch of clover and reach in and find the four-leaf clover — I could, from a young age.

I think my parents recognized that I was good at pattern recognition. Everyone has diverse talents. I always loved puzzles and games. They always encouraged me. They always bought me, for my birthday and for holidays, fun magazines where I could test or try out this pattern recognition.

When I started taking remote sensing classes, I got good at finding things. It’s part practice and part being good at pattern recognition, but also, there’s enormous luck. I got very fortunate with where I went to grad school and, obviously, in landing an academic position. There’s enormous privilege in who I am and what I do, and I recognize that. I was able to get a scholarship to go to grad school. I didn’t have an enormous amount of loans from college. We have to acknowledge all those things as well, given that moment in time that we’re in.

A lot of perseverance. For a long time, when I first started out, I was known as “that satellite girl,” which is so problematic on so many levels. I persevered. So many of us have had issues with #MeToo. It’s a lot of dogged determination versus one person recognizing me. Then over time, too — if you had told me when I started off that I would be here now, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m very, very grateful for the position that I have and for the platform that I have.

COWEN: Last question: now that you are indeed truly famous, what will you do next?

PARCAK: [laughs] Infamous, probably, at this particular moment especially. In the last couple of years, I have been reflecting a lot on my power and privilege within the field of academia. It can be overwhelming at times, but also, I feel I have an enormous responsibility because not very many people in archaeology, in academia generally speaking, get to move in the circles I get to move in.

I’m in a position now where I want to spend the rest of my career giving back and empowering people. It’s why I’m so passionate about the not-for-profit I run, GlobalXplorer. I want to use the tools and technologies that my team at GlobalXplorer and I have developed and use them to empower foreign governments to create platforms, and to allow people in those countries to help map and protect those archaeological sites.

Right now, our next big project for GlobalXplorer is building a new version of our Google Explore platform. We’re going to have a machine learning component that will allow us to go much faster, and we have a big official partnership with the Ministry of Culture in India and the government of India, and we’re building this platform. We’re going to be launching it later this year, so everyone, stay tuned. It will allow millions of people from around the world to help map and protect archaeological sites.

That’s what I want to do. I spend a lot of time mentoring junior colleagues in archaeology and in the social sciences. I’m also giving a lot more advice to cultural heritage bodies, to the US State Department with a lot of their heritage work. I’m working on some really interesting documentaries. There are some potential entertainment opportunities.

I just want to use my voice to be an advocate for the past and to empower as many people as possible to be new voices. I’m tired of hearing my own voice. It’s time for other people to be voices, and they’re so many brilliant young academics, indigenous archaeologists, and specialists. I want to use my platform to celebrate them and honor them and make sure that they’re the ones whose voices get heard now. I’m happy to take a back seat and to let them speak instead of me. It’s their turn.

COWEN: Sarah Parcak, thank you very much. Again, here is Sarah’s book, Archaeology from Space.

PARCAK: Thank you so much. This was a pleasure.

Photo credit: Ian Curacio