• Real-World Geography: Dr. Sarah Parcak
    Sarah Parcak is an Egyptologist.

    Photograph by Louise Bray

    By Alyssa Samson

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    Sarah Parcak, a 2012 Emerging Explorer, is not your average archaeologist. She uses satellite imagery to locate Egyptian sites—tombs, temples, entire urban areas—that have been lost through the passage of time.


    As far back as Sarah can remember, she has been in love with ancient Egypt. Although she cannot recall what exactly drew her in, she does remember one precise experience.

    “The tooth fairy actually brought me this incredible book on Egypt when I lost one of my first teeth. It was a great book,” she says. “I actually read it recently and it turns out it’s a great piece of information.”

    It was not just a personal interest in Egyptology that drew her to the world of maps, satellites, and long-lost ruins. Sarah’s grandfather, a professor of forestry at the University of Maine, was a pioneer in using tools to map forested areas. After spending weekends with her grandfather examining overlapped aerial photographs through a stereoscope, she decided to take her first remote sensing course in college. 
    “I just remembered the day that everything clicked and it started making sense,” Sarah says. “Yeah, I couldn’t do complicated physics equations, but I was really good at applying it. I innately understood how the technology would work for my area of expertise.”


    “I would say, just finding stuff, that’s such an innate human trend, we love finding things,” Sarah says. “It’s something very old and primal. The idea that we can use this amazing technology to seek, find, and explore better and to understand our world.”


    “I guess fundraising and writing grants,” Sarah says. “There is a lot of tedium in that, but we all have to do that and it’s critical. You don’t get 95 percent of the grants in which you apply. So, I guess the administration drudgery is icky, but I am really lucky because I love most of what I do.”


    Geography is about looking at the types of tools to help us better perceive our world and the world around us. . . . Geography is such a diverse field. You can look at cities, you can look at rivers, you can look at archaeology, but I think it is also about looking at the interplay and influence, because you can never study one thing.”


    Contrary to common belief, most sites in ancient Egypt have not yet been discovered. In fact, less than one percent have been excavated. Using satellite technology, Sarah is able to discover Egyptian sites that have not yet been unearthed. Sites that may have taken years to find can be located and even mapped in a mere couple of weeks.

    “They [satellites] allow us to see things very differently than what we simply cannot see, it’s like they give us a special superpower that allows us to see soil, vegetation, and geology differently—and that’s how we are able to find things that are literally hidden beneath our feet,” she says. 

    Also a professor at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Sarah says Google Earth is a satellite resource students should take advantage of.

    “You can use it to find so many different things and you can use it to answer big questions about geography, about landscape,” she says. “I tell my students that a picture is worth a thousand words and a satellite image is worth a million dollars.”


    Sarah suggests to students who are interested in archeology to “take tons of science classes. Take geology, chemistry, physics, biology, remote sensing. Take tons of science classes, because that is going to give you an edge in terms of getting into graduate school. Take multiple foreign languages. I would also say that double majoring is very important,” she says.


    “I would highly recommend any community folks to get involved in what is called the Archaeological Institute of America,” Sarah says. “It’s the largest archaeology body in North America. It’s very active, you get a cool magazine every month and you learn about expeditions all over the world.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    aerial photograph Noun

    picture of part of the Earth's surface, usually taken from an airplane.

    ancient Egypt Noun

    civilization in northeastern Africa, lasting from 3200 BCE to about 400 CE.

    archaeologist Noun

    person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

    archaeology Noun

    study of human history, based on material remains.

    Encyclopedic Entry: archaeology
    contrary Adjective

    opposite or opposed.

    critical Adjective

    very important.

    drudgery Noun

    dull and difficult work.

    Egyptology Noun

    study of ancient Egyptian history, language, religion, and material culture.

    Emerging Explorer Noun

    an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

    excavate Verb

    to expose by digging.

    expedition Noun

    journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

    forestry Noun

    management, cultivation, and harvesting of trees and other vegetation in forests.

    fund Verb

    to give money to a program or project.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    geology Noun

    study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

    grant Noun

    money given to a person or group of people to carry out a specific project or program.

    innate Adjective

    based in instinct, not learned or experienced.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    physics Noun

    study of the physical processes of the universe, especially the interaction of matter and energy.

    primal Adjective

    first, original, or most important.

    remote sensing Noun

    methods of information-gathering about the Earth's surface from a distance.

    satellite Noun

    object that orbits around something else. Satellites can be natural, like moons, or made by people.

    satellite imagery Noun

    photographs of a planet taken by or from a satellite.

    soil Noun

    top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

    stereoscope Noun

    instrument through which two images of the same scene, taken from slightly different viewpoints, are viewed by each eye individually, providing an illusion of three dimensions.

    tedium Noun

    state of boredom or dullness.

    temple Noun

    building used for worship.

    tomb Noun

    enclosed burial place.

    unearth Verb

    to dig up.

    urban area Noun

    developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

    Encyclopedic Entry: urban area
    vegetation Noun

    all the plant life of a specific place.

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