By Matt Windsor
Somewhere around 1,600 years ago, the inhabitants of the former Egyptian royal city of Tanis decided they had had enough. With the Nile River threatening to submerge their homes, the citizens of Tanis decamped for safer ground, leaving behind a metropolis of fine houses and elaborate tombs. They never returned, and the site was lost to history until 1939. Many experts think Tanis is as important as King Tut’s tomb. But apart from its fanciful role in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, the site remained largely unknown to the public. Until this year, that is, when UAB Egyptologist Sarah Parcak, Ph.D., peeled back the sand and the centuries in front of an audience of millions in the United States and Great Britain.
Parcak is a “space archaeologist,” which means she uses infrared data, radar, and other information from earth-facing satellites to locate hidden archaeological sites and features. Her pioneering work attracted the attention of a producer from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who wanted to build a show around Parcak’s research. After several years of study and filming on location in Egypt and in Parcak’s UAB lab, the BBC aired Egypt’s Lost Cities in May. In October, the Discovery Channel presented its own version of the program, Egypt: What Lies Beneath.
In both editions, television audiences saw Parcak uncover the remains of several buried sites using satellite-imaging techniques—then watched teams of excavators confirm her findings on the ground. Parcak’s research, funded by the BBC, revealed 3,100 ancient settlements and more than 1,000 tombs. She also found highly suggestive evidence pointing to the remains of more than a dozen lost pyramids. “The quality of the results really showed off the full capabilities of this technology,” Parcak says.
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The pyramid discoveries in particular made international headlines and attracted unprecedented attention to Parcak’s research. “Since the programs aired, I’ve received thousands of e-mails from people all over the world,” she says. “Plenty are from crackpots asking me to help them find Atlantis or things like that. But I’ve also heard from many, many students and others who are just very excited about the work.
Enrollment in Parcak’s UAB classes soared in the fall 2011 semester. And the funding provided by the BBC has provided her with enough research material for a decade’s worth of scientific papers, she notes.
Come Fly With Me
You could say that aerial innovation is a family tradition for Parcak. Her grandfather, Professor Harold Young, pioneered the use of aerial photographs to study forestry in the 1960s. As a child, Parcak’s interests ran more to pyramids than timber; she remembers devouring every new issue of National Geographic. But “I do what I do because of my grandfather,” Parcak says.
At Yale University and later at Cambridge University, Parcak became fascinated with the power of remote sensing—using satellite imagery and other data to study changes on the Earth’s surface. Oil companies, biologists, and city police forces, among others, have used the technology for decades. “At first I thought many people must be using this for archaeology, too, but then I realized that few were,” she says. Parcak, determined to be one of those few, learned how to adapt remote-sensing techniques to spot the telltale signs of buried tombs.
A Wrinkle in Time
Each new satellite project begins in the library, not in space, Parcak notes. “We scan in maps, and we look at excavations. You don’t want to say, ‘We found a temple,’ when the temple was found 100 years ago.” Parcak’s husband and fellow archaeologist, UAB assistant professor Greg Mumford, Ph.D., “has an amazing library” and supplied much of the research material for the BBC studies, she says.
After researchers learn all they can about a site, they begin poring over the available satellite data. (Parcak says she often starts with a quick survey using the free Google Earth software.) Then it’s a matter of experimenting with various techniques and combinations of imagery until they find evidence of manmade structures and “lost” cities.
Unless she’s using radar, which has its own limitations, “I’m never actually seeing underground,” Parcak explains. “What I’m seeing are very subtle changes on the Earth’s surface that are caused by what is buried underneath.” The techniques that worked on one site, however, may be useless at another. Unfavorable conditions, such as a wet winter when a dry one is necessary to spot key site features, can turn a project into a dead end.
On the Ground
There will never be a substitute, ultimately, for putting a spade in the sand and seeing what lies beneath. Parcak spends each summer in Egypt working on digs, except for this past summer, when the situation in the country was too unstable.
That did not stop her for long, however. In a new partnership with faculty at universities in Egypt, Parcak will begin training local students to use remote sensing techniques. “I feel very strongly that Egyptians should be trained in this technology,” she says. “They need these tools to monitor and protect sites.”
Back in Birmingham, Parcak’s students at UAB have the opportunity to get enviable work experience while they are undergraduates. Part of the funding from the BBC supported the hiring of several student researchers to help search for new sites, Parcak notes. “All of the students who were involved are now in master’s programs in archaeology or remote sensing. It’s a great time to be entering this field.”
See a preview of Sarah Parcak's documentary Egypt: What Lies Beneath.