World-renowned archaeologist and 1997 graduate of Bangor High School Sarah Parcak has been awarded the TED Foundation’s 2016 TED Prize, a $1 million prize given to an individual with a wish to “change the world.”
Parcak, 36, the daughter of longtime Bangor residents John and Marjorie Parcak and wife to fellow archaeologist Gregory Mumford, is a pioneering “satellite archaeologist,” who uses satellite images to uncover archaeological sites. That technology is now also used to protect sites in the Middle East and elsewhere from looters who wish to sell priceless antiquities on the black market. The funds from the sale of these items have been linked to terrorism and drug trafficking, according to Parcak.
“The last four and half years have been horrific for archaeology. I’ve spent a lot of time, as have many of my colleagues, looking at the destruction,” said Parcak, in a press release sent out by the TED Foundation. “This Prize is not about me. It’s about our field. It’s about the thousands of men and women around the world, particularly in the Middle East, who are defending and protecting sites.”
The TED Prize will allow Parcak to pursue in full an important project, details of which will be revealed at the annual TED Conference, set for February 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Previous winners of the award include Bill Clinton, Bono, Jamie Oliver and nearly 20 others. Parcak, who gave a TED Talk in 2012, has been the subject of numerous TV programs, including the BBC’s 2011 documentary “Egypt: What Lies Beneath.” She is the founding director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Laboratory for Global Observation, where she is also an associate professor.
Though Parcak’s accomplishments are too numerous to mention in full, the project for which she is most known is her work with satellite imagery to not only discover new archaeological sites, but also to ensure that sites across the world — for Parcak, specifically in Egypt, where her work has primarily focused — are safe from looters.
“For the first time technology has gotten to the point where we can map looting,” said Parcak, in a New York Times article published on Nov. 8.
Through comparing older satellite images of sites with newer ones, Parcak can see where looting excavacations may have taken place and then alert authorities; she also uses spectral and chemical signatures to aid in her understanding. Though looting in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State, or ISIS, has regularly been in the news in more recent months, looting remains a major problem in Egypt, as well as in nations rich with archaeological sites like Peru, India and China.
Parcak explained the process of using satellite imagery as a kind of giant space X-ray.
“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, in a 2011 interview with the Bangor Daily News. “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 was born and raised in Bangor, and retains many ties both friendly and familial to the state. 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.
“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.”