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Citizen Jones and the temple of space archaeology

Speed read
  • Valuable archaeological sites are being looted faster than scientists can discover them
  • High-resolution satellite imagery reveals previously undiscovered sites
  • Crowd-sourcing allows anyone to participate in archaeological exploration

An ancient village slumbers in the Peruvian mountains, undisturbed for centuries. Geometric shapes and zoomorphic figures zigzag across carved rock. Beneath the overgrown soil lie household goods, paintings, textiles, and early technology — a treasure trove of human history with incalculable value, waiting to be discovered.

But only if we get there before the looters do.

Pitch perfect. In this 2016 TED talk, Sarah Parcak describes building an online citizen science tool called GlobalXplorer that will train an army of volunteer explorers to find and protect the world's hidden heritage.

Around the world, thousands of precious archaeological sites are being looted or destroyed, their artifacts sold on the international black market, with profits sometimes funding terrorist groups like ISIL.

The clock is ticking.

But satellite archaeologist Sarah Parcak aims to beat the looters to the sites and preserve the history of human civilization. And she wants ordinary citizens around the world to help her do it.

Parcak, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and 2016 TED Prize winner has created GlobalXplorer, an online platform that uses high-resolution satellite imagery to discover previously unknown archaeological sites across the globe.

“We’re creating a twenty-first century army of global explorers,” says Parcak, “who will find and protect the world’s hidden heritage that contains clues to humankind’s collective resilience and creativity.”

Space archaeology

Partnering with the National Geographic Society, DigitalGlobe, Inc. and MondoRobot, GlobalXplorer gamifies the experience of searching satellite imagery. Citizen explorers sign-up, take a brief tutorial, and begin analyzing individual tiles of .3-meter (10-inch) resolution images, looking for evidence of ancient structures or looting activity.

“We use satellite images and process them using algorithms,” says Parcak, “and look at subtle differences in the light spectrum that indicate buried things under the ground.”

Greatest hits of satellite archaeology

GlobalXplorer’s images are provided by DigitalGlobe’s Worldview-3, a satellite with the ability to penetrate clouds and haze. Its multi-spectral and infrared capabilities help distinguish between different materials on the earth’s surface, allowing improved feature identification.

At .3 meters, the resolution is so fine that users can see individual buildings and other structures, and Parcak’s team has already identified previously unknown sites.

Some of the imagery will be processed using Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which displays healthy and unhealthy vegetation in different colors, aiding users in detecting vegetation patterns growing over ancient ruins.

“We’re at a tipping point,” says Parcak. “We’re the generation with all the tools and all the technologies to stop looting, but we’re not working fast enough.”

On the ground

GlobalXplorer’s first expedition explores Peru, home to a unique climate that has preserved artifacts from a variety of different cultures from different time periods. The GlobalXplorer platform can be used in both English and Spanish so that people from Peru and across Latin America can participate in the search.

“GlobalXplorer will help us find the millions of places occupied by the billions of people who came before us,” says Parcak. “If we want to answer the big questions about who we are and where we came from, those answers do not lie in pyramids or palaces but in the cities and villages of those who came before us.”

<strong>Top of the world. </strong> Sarah Parcak is enlisting citizens from around the world to take part in a cultural preservation project. By tagging images from satellite photos, like this image of Machu Pichu, unobserved sites and looting can be spotted. Courtesy ©DigitalGlobe 2017.

In order to protect and anonymize the location of the sites, image tiles are provided to users randomly, without context or the ability to zoom out. New discoveries will be reported to Peru’s Ministry of Culture, which is working to protect sites from looters.

“All the data users help us to collect will be shared with vetted authorities and will help create a new global alarm system to protect sites,” says Parcak.

One important piece of preservation is empowering local communities to benefit sustainably from their cultural heritage. “Looting is fundamentally an economic issue,” says Parcak. “Many of humanity’s most important heritage sites co-exist with some of the world’s poorest people.”

In Peru, GlobalXplorer works with the Sustainable Preservation Initiative (SPI), an on-the-ground partner that helps communities preserve sites for future generations by providing skills, training, and business funding — particularly to local women.

“SPI encourages local communities to treasure their cultural heritage and take ownership of it,” says Parcak.

Democratization of archaeology

By creating an online, crowd-sourced, citizen-science platform that allows anyone in the world to participate, GlobalXplorer is making archeological exploration more open, more inclusive, and at a scale not previously possible.

If we want to answer the big questions about who we are and where we came from, those answers do not lie in pyramids or palaces but in the cities and villages of those who came before us. ~ Sarah Parcak

Peru is just the beginning. GlobalXplorer plans to expand throughout the world. The next country to be explored will be launched on the platform in late 2017.

“One hundred years ago, archaeology was for the rich,” says Parcak. “Fifty years ago, it was for men. Now it’s primarily for academics. Our goal is to democratize the process of archeological discovery and allow anyone to participate.”

Parcak estimates that, to date, less than 1/1000th of one percent of potential archaeological sites have been excavated. So why not grab your fedora and bullwhip and join Dr. Parcak on her expedition — you never know what you might discover!

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