Internationally renowned “space archaeologist” and Bangor native Sarah Parcak is passionate about many things — not just Ancient Egypt, from which she has spent the bulk of her career excavating and studying ruins.
She is passionate about ancient civilizations, whether they existed in the jungles of Guatemala or on islands in the North Atlantic. She is passionate about gender, racial and LGBTQ equity in the sciences. And she’s particularly passionate about debunking pseudo-scientific conspiracies and misinformation. Mention the term “ancient aliens” to her, and she gets downright furious.
“Some people believe that people with darker skin in Egypt and Central America couldn’t possibly have built pyramids, and it must have been aliens. That absolutely just infuriates me,” Parcak said. “It’s racist. And it plays into narratives of white nationalism, in the same way that Viking mythology also gets co-opted by white nationalists. It is really dangerous pseudo-science.”
Getting science that is highly researched and fact-checked — but still accessible and easy to understand — into the mainstream is one of the reasons why she wrote her new book, “Archaeology From Space: How The Future Shapes Our Past,” out on Tuesday from Henry Holt & Co.
“There just aren’t very many popular archaeology books out there — other than the ones that try to say aliens built the pyramids,” Parcak said. “I have a platform that allows me to shine a light on these amazing civilizations, and on the amazing people on the ground in these countries that do the work.”
Parcak became famous for the pioneering work she does with her husband, Greg Mumford, in using satellite imaging to identify potential archaeological sites. Parcak in 2007 founded the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmington, where she’s an anthropology professor. There, she’s able to train her “eye in the sky” to peer beneath the surface in places such as Peru, Scotland, Newfoundland and her beloved Egypt.
In 2013, she was named a National Geographic fellow, and in 2015 she was awarded the TED Prize, which came with $1 million. In 2016, Parcak used that money to launch Global XPlorer, a website that allows users to look through individual satellite photos, identifying specific elements in the photos that may point to potential archaeological sites. She’s been featured in three BBC documentaries, and has appeared on everything from “60 Minutes” to “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Before all that, however, Parcak was a kid from Bangor, growing up on the East Side and spending hours at the Bangor Public Library devouring books. Though she is often compared to fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones — “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was a childhood favorite movie — Parcak has for much longer held her grandfather, the late University of Maine professor Harold Young, as her main source of inspiration.
Parcak believes being from Maine, and particularly from Bangor, has given her a leg up in her career in terms of work ethic, attitude and love of the outdoors.
“I think when you’re from here, you can’t help but grow up grounded. You can’t have too many airs about yourself when you’re from Bangor. You still have to shovel the driveway,” Parcak said. “I think that work ethic and that grounded kind of attitude has helped me in a huge way, in all sorts of situations. I’m not afraid to get dirty. Literally.”
Parcak’s career has sent her zooming around the globe, and in “Archaeology From Space,” her many fascinating discoveries and colorful stories are rendered in lively, conversational language — though they are always backed up with painstakingly fact-checked notes and citations.
“I have realized that a lot of very well known writers that have written popular science books have been very sloppy with sources, and have even plagiarized things,” Parcak said. “I am an academic, first and foremost, and I took tremendous care not to do that.”
There are many other places around the world aside from Egypt where Parcak would love to do more intensive research — in particular, the dense rainforests of Central Africa, which have barely been touched, archaeologically speaking. Later this year, she’s off to India to work on a project with that country’s Ministry of Culture.
Parcak is keenly aware, however, of the ticking clock of climate change, which threatens thousands of unexamined archaeological sites worldwide.
“We unfortunately have to triage, and figure out what we’re going to be able to save, and what we have to look at first,” she said. “And that’s something that’s up to individual countries, not to me. What I can do is the mapping that can identify what sites might be there.”
In the process of writing the book, Parcak — who has also written a textbook on satellite archaeology — found that there were some important similarities between her work in the field, and her work writing. Both require an exacting attention to detail. Whether she’s shoveling in the dirt, or putting her stories to paper, she’ll never be satisfied. There’s always more world to explore, and more stories to tell.
“Writing this book made me realize that we as humans are always in permanent draft form. We’re never fully edited,” said Parcak. “There’s always more to discover.”
“Archaeology From Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past” is available wherever books are sold.