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TED Radio Hour

Sarah Parcak: How Can Satellite Images Unlock Secrets To Our Hidden Past?

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TED2016 TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak speaks at TED2016.
Bret Hartman, Bret Hartman / TED

TED2016 TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak speaks at TED2016.

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode TED Radio Wow-er

There may be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of undiscovered ancient sites. Sarah Parcak wants to locate them — from space.

About Sarah Parcak

Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist, who uses satellite images to locate hidden ancient sites around the world, such as ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, and more. Since winning the 2016 TED Prize, she launched an online crowdsourcing archaeology platform called GlobalXPlorer.

Sarah is also an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she founded the Laboratory for Global Observation. She holds a BA from Yale University and an MA and PhD from Cambridge University.


Activity Guide - Printable PDF

Activity 1: What Will Survive?

Archaeologists know that organic stuff (things that are or used to be alive) is susceptible to decay. If you've ever seen or made a time capsule, this is why they need to be airtight and dry. Archaeologists don't find organic remains very often, because it generally undergoes significant decay within a fairly short time. At most sites, fragile artifacts and organic remains are lost, and we'll never know what stories they could have told. Inorganic remains survive better, although they too can rust, erode, or otherwise break down in unstable conditions. Only if a site is covered over and sealed quickly, as Pompeii was by volcanic ash, may both organic and inorganic remains survive.

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Here's some definitions and examples: Organic (once living) remains survive well only if protected (by hot/dry, airless, waterlogged, and very cold or frozen environments, or if sealed in volcanic ash). Organic remains turn to dirt easily. Examples of organic remains include human and animal bones, plants, objects and features made of plants and animals (like food, paper, wood, leather). Inorganic (never living) remains survive well in relatively airless conditions, although they too can break down when exposed to the elements. Examples of inorganic remains include clay, stone, cement, plastic, glass, and metal.

Materials:

  • Just a pencil and paper! Though a clipboard would be helpful too.

How To Do It:

  • Make a list of the furniture and objects in a room at home. Carefully note whether each object is organic or inorganic. If an object has parts of both, make a note of which parts are which (for example, the legs of a chair are organic, the rest is inorganic).
  • Assume 1,000 years have passed, and the room has not been specially preserved like Pompeii. List what will be left after all the organic materials decay.
  • Summarize what you think an archaeologist in the future will be able to say about your room, your family, and you as an individual. Will your name survive? Will your taste in colors or music or books survive? Will the archaeologist know for certain what your gender or age is?
  • Another thing to think about is what objects would not survive that are also very important to you—and that say a lot about who you are and how you live.
  • If you liked the activity, you can do it again for a different room at home and compare the surviving artifacts in both rooms. Would an archaeologist now have a better understanding of how you live? Did the kind of room make a difference, for example did more of the kitchen survive as compared to your bedroom?

Source: Adapted from The Archaeological Institute of America

Activity 2: Backyard Photo Scavenger Hunt

Archaeology is all about documenting a site. Sarah Parcak is especially cool because she does this from space, using cameras and sensors on satellites. For this activity, the site is your backyard (or any area outside that your family is okay with you exploring). We're not going to photograph your site the way archaeologists do, but we are going to test our observation skills and get creative.

Materials:

  • Digital camera or phone camera
  • If you don't have either of those, no worries! You can always do a quick sketch of what it is you'd like to capture.

How To Do It:

  • Search your site for objects that you think best represents each of the adjectives below. You can take the pictures in any order. Bonus points if it's an object that would survive, like we learned about in the first exercise.
  • You're looking for something: smaller than you, taller than you, yellow, cheerful, lonely, pointy, soft, clean, dark, light, moving, shiny, colorful, unique, cold, warm, magical.
  • See if a friend or family member can guess which picture goes with which adjective. Or if more than one person did the activity, take turns showing each other a picture and guessing the adjective. See if they can guess whether it represents "soft" or "dark." If they guess the adjective correctly, ask them what about your photo made them think that was the answer. If they did not guess it correctly, what made it not look like the answer.
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