Article

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.

EARLY WORK

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.”

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“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.”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

“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.”

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

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.”

GEO-CONNECTION

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.”

SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ARCHAEOLOGIST

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.

GET INVOLVED

“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.”

Vocabulary

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.

Credits

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Writer

Alyssa Samson

Editor

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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