Sarah Parcak doesn’t mind if you compare her to Indiana Jones. After all, how many globetrotting superstar archaeologists are out there? But Parcak, 32, is more likely to be found hunkered down in her research facilities at the University of Alabama at Birmingham poring over data than exploring lost temples and ancient cities in Egypt. Though she does plenty of the latter, too.
Parcak, a 1997 graduate of Bangor High School, has made a name for herself as one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists, using infrared satellite imagery to discover thousands of new sites throughout Egypt. A BBC documentary on the work of Parcak and her team of scientists, “Egypt: What Lies Beneath,” will air at 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, on the Discovery Channel. The film is narrated by Brendan Fraser and prominently features Parcak.
“People don’t see the hours and hours of research and writing grants and data processing that happens behind the scenes,” said Parcak. “I will say, though, that archaeology is one of those things that I think a lot of little kids dream about [pursuing] when they grow up. It’s not usually like a movie, but still, I’m really blessed. I get to find cool stuff in Egypt. And grad school doesn’t really prepare you for being on TV and working with Brendan Fraser and Omar Sharif.”
Parcak was born and raised in Bangor, the daughter of John and Marjorie Parcak, who still reside in Bangor. Her grandfather, Harold Young, was a forestry professor at the University of Maine and was one of the pioneers of using aerial photography to track the health of different species of trees. While Parcak’s work using satellite imagery is light years ahead, technologically speaking, of what her grandfather was doing in the 1960s, there’s still a kind of continuity in both their work — it’s all about pattern recognition. Parcak also credits some of her teachers at Bangor schools for pushing her in the direction she eventually went in.
“I can certainly give a lot of credit to some of the fantastic teachers I had in Bangor,” said Parcak, naming history teachers Jeannie Butterfield and James Smith as influential on her young mind. “[They] always kept me interested in history and ancient history. I was always interested in Egypt, from a very young age.”
During her undergraduate years at Yale University, Parcak took a class in hieroglyphics, which sparked her initial interest. Later, she became a research assistant to an Egyptologist who was working on satellite imagery, and by the time she went on to postgraduate work at Cambridge University in England, she was on the path to making archaeology and Egyptology her career.
The work Parcak has become most famous for is what she has done with remote sensing by satellite imagery analysis, which she uses to detect archaeological sites. A process that in previous decades would have taken months of tedious surface detection now can be done in far less time with far less money.
“Think of it as a space-based MRI, or X-ray machine. Basically, we send up a satellite that takes pictures of the Earth, that record information on the different parts of the light spectrum that we can’t see with the human eye,” said Parcak. “We may see a tree as just being a tree, but if there’s a pyramid or a city buried underneath, that is going to affect the vegetation, the soil, the geology around it. That difference shows up in parts of the light spectrum, and that’s one of the things that gives us a clue that there’s something underneath.”
Parcak is director of the Middle Egypt Survey Project and co-directs RESCUE, or Remote Sensing and Coring of Uncharted Egyptian Sites, with her husband, Greg Mumford, also based at UAB. In 2003 and 2004, Parcak detected 132 sites in the Sinai, East Delta and Middle Egypt. In May of this year, Parcak and her UAB team announced the the discovery of 17 lost pyramids and more than 1,000 tombs and 3,000 ancient settlements outside San El Hagar.
The entire field of archaeology has been transformed by this technology, which also is being used to discover new sites in China and Central America.
The discoveries made by Parcak and her team are the focus of “Egypt: What Lies Beneath,” the BBC documentary airing this weekend.
Parcak has been to Egypt twice this year — once in May and once in March, mere weeks after the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak and overthrew the government. Though Parcak would love to get back to Egypt as soon as possible, the political situation is so volatile that it’s more likely she’ll return next summer.
As for the countless priceless antiquities that are housed in museums throughout the country, Parcak said that she’s of course worried for them — a number were looted during the protests and riots that led up to the ouster, and some of the museums are still unsafe. But Parcak believes that the safety and political future of the people of Egypt is a much more important concern at the moment.
“The most important thing is that Egypt gets the government it wants, and they don’t have it right now. The military is still in control. I think we’ll have to wait and see what happens once the elections happen. Things will be much clearer then,” said Parcak. “I do know that a lot of sites have been damaged and there has been some looting. The infrastructure is damaged. Tourism is down 80 percent. It’s a difficult time. There are a lot of problems to work out.”
Meanwhile, Parcak is busy doing ever more analysis of the satellite images, with new discoveries coming all the time.
Parcak also tries to visit her home state as often as possible. The peace and quiet, the lobster, the trees and, of course, her family, are never far from her mind — even when she’s trekking through the desert, helping to unravel the mysteries of ancient Egypt.