BELOIT — Thanks to the use of technology and citizen scientists, archaeology is more accessible to everyone.
That’s what Sarah Parcak, internationally renowned Egyptologist, space archaeologist and science communicator, explained after receiving the 2021 Roy Chapman Andrews Society Distinguished Explorer Award at the 18th Distinguished Explorer Award Event held virtually on Monday evening. She was scheduled to receive the honor in 2020, but due to the health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the awards ceremony at Beloit College was cancelled.
During Monday’s virtual event on Facebook Live, Roy Chapman Andrews Society Board President Will Anderson commended Parcak for providing insights into ancient cultures. Like Andrews, he said Parcak has embraced the joy of communicating research and taking it further by involving the public and diverse groups.
Following her acceptance, Parcak gave a lecture titled “Towards an inclusive future of the past: How to make archaeology for everyone.”
In her presentation, Parcak shared how she used satellite images to not only document looted sites in Egypt, but to uncover evidence of various archaeological sites in Tunisia, Italy, Romania and beyond.
The core of her work has been in Egypt. She said she began in 2011, after the Arab Spring, to look at the scale and extent of looting of archaeological sites across Egypt. She would go on to map looting pits throughout the country.
Parcak explained there was a long standing theory that looting got worse after Arab Spring, but Parcak said she and colleagues also considered factors such as tourist numbers, inflation, unemployment and other economic factors.
“It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out. We always have to be digging for the deeper story,” Parcak said.
Parcak shared some of her adventures uncovering massive tombs in Egypt including one found from the Middle Kingdom period. In addition to satellite mapping and excavation, Parcak said she has used 3D mapping to figure out what tombs looked like and their scale.
In Egypt, she and colleagues also ran a field school. She stressed those with great privilege in science must pass their knowledge on to others.
In order to find out about the life of ancient Egyptians, she said one has to work in tombs and excavate bones for analysis which can indicate how and why people died which can also shed light on the successes or demise of their societies. Some societies she has researched improved after more people reached the middle class.
Parcak said good archaeology is not just about projects and collaboration, but also about how to get the world to participate in mapping out sites. There are also growing challenges with climate change, and Parcak noted oceans levels will rise.
“We need the help of the world,” she said.
After winning the 2016 million-dollar TED prize, Parcak established GlobalXplorer (www.globalxplorer.org), a platform for crowdsourcing of satellite data that allowed anyone with an internet connection to experience the excitement of identifying potential archaeological and looting sites. She started in Peru, but the goal is to map the world, as the platform partners with other countries and organizations.
Parcak said there are 10 levels to explore in the platform, including “looting” and “discovering” in addition to training videos people can see to learn all about mapping after viewing satellite images. However, she noted latitude and longitude is missing from public access keeping further looters from plunder.
She said the data is provided to local archaeologists who can use it to do the best jobs possible.
Next, Parcak will be going to India. She explained when archaeologists sit down with governments and partner organizations, they see what sorts of help the locals are looking for.
“We always let the in-country government and partner organizations guide what we do,” she said.
Parcak encourages more people to visit the GlobalXplorer platform to be citizen archaeologists and to be part of protecting the world’s heritage.
Ultimately, she said the world is better because of its diversity. She said archaeology shows people the value of diversity as the accomplishments of amazing cultures throughout the world are discovered.
Earlier in the day, Parcak presented a live virtual program titled “The future of exploration: Archaeology in 2040 and beyond” for area students grades 6-12 in the school districts of Beloit, Turner, Clinton and South Beloit.
Roy Chapman Andrews is believed to have been the inspiration for the Hollywood character “Indiana Jones.” He was born on St. Lawrence Avenue in Beloit in 1894. He gained national fame as an explorer for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Best remembered for the series of expeditions he led to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia from 1922 to 1930, Andrews took a team of scientists into previously unexplored parts of the desert using some of the region’s first automobiles with extra supplies transported by camel caravan, according to the Roy Chapman Andrews Society Board website at https://roychapmanandrewssociety.org.