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This Ingenious Archaeologist Uses Satellites to Hunt Down Tomb Raiders

Can satellite imagery help protect humanity’s priceless artifacts?

A painted wooden coffin beside a looted tomb in the Abu Sir al Malaq necropolis in Bani Suef, Egypt. (Shawn Baldwin/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

To track down the remnants of long-lost cities and civilizations, Sarah Parcak doesn't wander off into the wilderness: she examines it from 700 miles above the Earth's surface. A pioneering "space archaeologist," Parcak combs through images captured by high-flying satellites to discover humanity's hidden treasures. Now, shes turning those cameras towards looters, tracking down tomb raiders and grave robbers in the Middle East.

"We can tell from the pictures where people are digging, and even the time period of a tomb that’s been looted," Parcak tells National Geographic's Tom Clynes. "Then we can alert law enforcement agencies to watch out for antiquities from that time that may come up for sale."

In recent years, looting historic sites for artifacts to sell on the black market has become something of a cottage industry. While most high-profile looting is reported in war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq, Egypt has also struggled with looters since its 2011 revolution, Ralph Blumenthal and Tom Mashberg report for The New York Times. Though a satellite image can't track down specific stolen artifacts, it can alert archaeologists to looting in certain sites.

"Through the work of Sarah we try to record the looting sites on satellite imagery to support our inquiries," Ali Ahmed, head of artifact repatriations for Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities, tells Blumenthal and Mashberg. "We have many examples of artifacts that were already saved and cataloged from right near the looted sites—so we know what kinds of artifacts are being looted, and we are starting to list them in a database."

To protect these vulnerable dig sites, Parcak has worked with both the Egyptian Ministry of Artifacts and the United States' Department of Homeland Security, which returned dozens of illicit artifacts worth millions of dollars to their countries of origins under "Operation Mummy's Curse." Recently, Parcak became the first archaeologist to win the 2016 TED prize for her work uncovering lost treasures.

Satellite imaging has become an indispensible archaeological tool: Parcak has discovered thousands of ancients tombs and settlements throughout Egypt and the Roman Empire, and in 2007, an amateur archaeologist stumbled across massive earthworks in Kazakhstan's steppes while playing with Google Earth. Though satellite imaging can be a great tool for people looking to protect and study these sites, Blumenthal and Mashberg report that it's not all good news. The same technology can also help looters pick the next targets to plunder.

"The looters are using Google Earth too," Parcak tells Blumenthal and Mashberg. "They’re coming in with metal detectors and geophysical equipment. Some ask me to confirm sites."

Parcak says satellite imaging will never replace field work; all it can do is help detect sites to explore. But for now, those eyes in the sky may help authorities track down the looters who pilfer ancient artifacts.

h/t Christian Science Monitor

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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