The South is a region captivated by history. Civil war history. Civil rights history. Football history. It’s always a topic of conversation. And it’s also comparatively recent. But what will our history look like a thousand years from now? How will we be remembered? What will be our story?
That’s part of what I discussed with Dr. Sarah Parcak, a space archaeologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the 2016 winner of the TED Prize. She has a new book out called “Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past,” which highlights how she and her colleagues use satellite technology to deepen our understanding of ancient history.
This week on the Reckon Interview, we’re chatting about ancient civilizations, Confederate monuments, and how she has helped carve out a whole new field of exploration.
Here’s an excerpt from the episode to get you started.
Sarah Parcak on archaeology from space
Most of us now use Google Earth, it’s a great resource and human eyes are far better than machines at detecting particular patterns and shapes. That’s what we’ve been doing for the 300,000 years that we’ve existed as humans. So first of all, you’re looking for particular shapes or particular features that have colors, tones, textures, hues. And then what oftentimes you’re doing is you’re processing the satellite imagery.
So when satellites capture data, most of the time they’re capturing data in the visible part of the light spectrum, which is what we can see with our eyes, which is great and really useful, and really helpful. But where satellites really start to aid scientific research is that they capture data in the near, middle, and far infrared parts of the light spectrum. And there’s some satellites that capture radar data, for example.
What the satellite data and the near, middle and far infrared does is it allows you to see things that are otherwise invisible. For example, you know, everything on the Earth’s surface has its own distinct chemical signature. And you may be looking, say, at a rain forest, or, or grassland and it may look like the same as millions of trees or hundreds of thousands of trees and the same types of grass, but all that grass and all those trees, each individual species will reflect a little bit differently in the near-infrared, because of the health of its vegetation.
And so what we do with the satellite imagery is we use it to discriminate particular groups of vegetation, or soil, or things on the ground in colors that we wouldn’t think of. So if things appear visible, or rather if things appear invisible, we can help to make them visible by processing the imagery. And that’s really some of the main work that my colleagues do, and I as well, with looking at satellite imagery. Sometimes you’re looking for horses in haystacks, and sometimes you’re looking for needles in haystacks. And the satellite imagery can really help to make features pop out, whether it’s a whole site, whether it’s a wall on a site, whether it’s a relic, river, or canal or old road.
When you go to a museum, or when you look at any Hollywood movie, you know Indiana Jones included, it seems like archaeologists are obsessed with shiny things. And like, it’s really cool to find something shiny when you’re digging. That’s nice. But at the end of the day, we’re really interested in the people that lived in the past, what made them tick? What made civilizations thrive? What made them survive and or not survive? What lessons or inferences can we pull from that today? So you know, that’s really what drives us in the field.
We’re really much more interested: how many people lived in a particular place? What were their diseases? What was daily life, like in ancient Egypt, or Greece or Rome or for the Maya? That’s really what people are interested in generally, you know.
Yeah, okay, that’s nice. It’s a shiny gold ring, but who owned the ring? Why did they own the ring? Well did they drop it? Why did they drop it? What was it for? Were they a priestess? Ooh, they were a priestess? Well, that’s interesting. I want to know more about her. So it’s the people behind the objects that drive us to ask these big questions.
For more about Dr. Sarah Parcak, archaeology from space and Confederate monuments, listen to the full episode here.