If you are the type of person to drop change on the ground or misplace your car keys, you might want to call Sarah Parcak, Ph.D., to see if she can help.

Sarah Parcak pauses for picture in front of an ancient sphinx at a site in Giza, Cairo, in the spring of 2006. Parcak is leading archaeologists in a race against time to uncover sites in Egypt that are being destroyed by war, development, urban sprawl and looting.

She has knack for finding hidden things.

“I’ve always been good at finding things,” Parcak says. “When I was little, if someone dropped a quarter on the street, I would find it. If you show me a patch of clover, I’ll find the four-leaf clover.”

These days, Parcak, an assistant professor in the UAB Department of Anthropology, is trying to unearth greater things. She’s leading archaeologists in a race against time to uncover sites in Egypt that are being destroyed by war, development, urban sprawl and looting.

By her estimates, only 1/100th of 1 percent of these archaeological sites have been uncovered in one of the world’s oldest civilizations, which dates back more than 6,000 years and covers a landmass of 387,000 square miles.

“There are thousands, tens of thousands, of cities and villages yet to be discovered,” Parcak says. “People have focused for years on tombs, and we know how kings, queens and princesses lived. So what? How did everyday people live? How did they function on a day-to-day basis? These are questions you can only answer by looking at settlements.”

But finding such settlements isn’t easy. In the Middle East, the remains of many ancient towns and settlements lie beneath modern towns. It makes the ancient sites – or “tells” – difficult to locate with conventional archaeological surveying techniques. Instead, Parcak relies on satellite remote-sensing technology to locate them.

A different space race
Currently more than a dozen orbiting satellites provide data crucial to improving knowledge of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, ice, snow and land, according to the Center for International Earth Science Information Network. Egyptologists now are employing the same technology geologists, meteorologists and other scientists have used for years. With satellite remote sensing, sensors mounted onto satellites measure the energy reflected from the earth’s surface.

The data is displayed as a digital image that shows environmental changes, agricultural activities, water temperatures and erosion.

“There are a number of computer programs you can use to analyze this imagery, and it’s extremely beneficial in locating sites,” Parcak says. “With this technology, I kind of have a sixth sense about what will work and what won’t.”

For example, in 2003-2004, Parcak located 132 ancient sites, some dating as far back as 3,000 B.C. Previous surveys and excavations recorded only 59, and 83 other sites had never been visited or recorded. She even found 15 sites once believed destroyed. Still, “I’m only uncovering a fraction of what’s there even using this technology,” she says.

Site loss
One of the areas in which Parcak has been able to see the results of erosion, for example, is at a site in Tell Tebilla. In the early 1800s, Parcak says the site measured 1,000 by 1,000 meters in size. Today, the same site measures 360 by 300 meters in size.

“It’s massive site loss,” she says. “In another 10-15 years the site will be gone, and it dates to around 600 B.C.”

Two other things that greatly complicate excavation are population pressures and private ownership of many sites. Often, families are forced to remove an archaeological site to build their house and turn a field over to growing their food.

“This is not just happening in Egypt,” Parcak says. “It’s a global problem.”

Still exciting
Parcak and her husband Greg Mumford, Ph.D., an instructor in anthropology, typically make trips to Egypt twice a year. Parcak is a field director for the Middle Egypt Survey project, based out of Tell El-Amarna, Egypt’s most well preserved city.

Parcak says the thrill of the unknown still most excites her about a site, and that her specific interest in Egypt stems from a childhood experience. She remembers that her family was supposed to go to New York to a King Tut exhibit but had to cancel at the last minute.

“I guess I claim my career as a sort of revenge,” she says, laughing. “It makes no sense that a girl from Bangor, Maine, would have an interest in Egypt. But I do, and I love it.”