Looking Back At Human History, Archaeologist Suspects 'We're 51% Good'

Jul 29, 2019
Originally published on July 30, 2019 2:00 pm

"My entire life is in ruins."

The first line in Sarah Parcak's new book might come off a bit bleak, but the archaeologist means this literally, not figuratively. In fact, she's found studying thousands of years of human history has actually given her hope, or at least some hope. "Humans are very resilient," she says. "And in spite of all the terrible things that we have done to each other, I think we're 51% good. So I try to hold onto that, especially being the parent of a young child."

Parcak uses satellite imagery to spot ancient settlements, tombs and temples buried under the ground. Her new book is called Archaeology from Space: How The Future Shapes Our Past.

"I think I have the same perspective of Earth that astronauts have," Parcak says. "I don't see borders. I see how connected we are."

Parcak has used satellite imagery to spot more than a dozen potential pyramids and thousands of ancient tombs in Egypt.

"The things on top of the buried sites are affected by what's beneath," she explains. "So by looking at different parts of the light spectrum — especially the near, middle and far infrared — we can see these shapes and outlines in ways that we absolutely cannot see with our naked eyes alone. It's almost like a space-based X-ray system to help us view, in some cases, entire maps of ancient archaeological sites."

In some ways, this work is in Parcak's blood. Her grandfather was a paratrooper in World War II and the aerial mapping techniques that he used back then — which he would later use to develop cutting edge forestry technology — helped pave the way for her work.

"He's the reason I took my first remote sensing class," Parcak says. And she's found some uncanny similarities between his career and hers. Take the time she came across an article he wrote in 1953 about the way infrared technology could help map different trees: "I realized line-for-line it was almost identical to what I had written about the way infrared satellite imagery could be used to map archaeological sites," she says.

Parcak's grandfather died more than two decades ago, "but I feel like he's with me all the time," she says.

As an archaeologist, Parcak feels deeply connected to the past. She still remembers working in Egypt more than 20 years ago, and unearthing a 4,200-year-old pot with a big thumbprint on the handle. Parcak could envision a large man, working at his potter's wheel, pressing his finger into the soft clay.

"We're not actually digging for things, we're actually digging for people — the people who made these things," she says. "That's what I try to remember no matter what I take out of the ground. I try to imagine the humans that made it that were so much like us, in spite of being separated by thousands of years."

Parcak loves being out in the field, but says her sitting-at-her-computer-screen to digging-and-getting-dirt-under-her-fingernails ratio is probably about 12 to 1. Still, she says she never loses sight of her "greatest privilege" — getting to lay eyes on an object that hasn't been seen in thousands of years.

"I feel like I'm adding little footnotes to the history of humanity, one at a time, with every little thing that I excavate," she says. "I try to never take it for granted for a moment."

Parcak says she thinks of the ancient world as a great big jigsaw puzzle. With each discovery, with each dig, with each piece of pottery, she has found another piece of the puzzle — and those pieces gradually help her see the larger picture.

"We say in archaeology: It's not what you find, it's what you find out," she says.

So she looks up to space to help answer the "bigger questions" about life on Earth.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The first line in Sarah Parcak's new book might come off as a little bleak. My entire life is in ruins. She's an archaeologist. My life is in ruins. Get it? The book is called "Archaeology From Space." Parcak uses new technology like satellite images to spot ancient settlements, tombs and temples buried under the ground.

SARAH PARCAK: The things on top of the buried sites are affected by what's beneath. So by looking at different parts of the light spectrum, especially the near, middle and far infrared, we can see these shapes and outlines in ways that we absolutely cannot see with our naked eyes alone. So it's almost like a space-based X-ray system to help us view, in some cases, entire maps of ancient archaeological sites.

SHAPIRO: Using satellite imagery, she has spotted more than a dozen potential pyramids and thousands of ancient tombs in Egypt. In some ways, this work is in Sarah Parcak's blood. Her grandfather was a paratrooper in World War II. And the mapping techniques that he used back then helped pave the way for Parcak's work.

PARCAK: During World War II, all the paratroopers would get, like, little pocket fold-up maps that were black and white aerial photographs taken from the sky of exactly where they were landing and where they were supposed to meet up with their men. My grandfather took this new technology with him when he went to grad school in the 1940s and decided to apply this very cutting-edge technology to forestry.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about the moment that you realized that what you are doing in the 21st century actually harkens back to what your grandfather did.

PARCAK: So he's the reason I took my first, you know, remote sensing class. And, of course, it's very, very different than the work that he did. But I was trying to find some articles he wrote. And I found an article he wrote in 1953, and he's talking about the advent of all these amazing new technologies like infrared and how it can help to map different trees in ways that they'd never seen before. And I realized, line for line, it was almost identical to what I had written about the way infrared satellite imagery could be used to map archaeological sites. I'm like, whoa.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, it's like your ancestor's reaching out and tapping you on the shoulder (laughter) in the present day.

PARCAK: It is. You know, my - unfortunately, my grandfather passed away more than 20 years ago, but I feel like he's with me all the time.

SHAPIRO: How much of your work is spent looking at satellite images on a computer screen versus digging in the ground and brushing off artifacts that you actually pull out of the Earth?

PARCAK: So yeah, it's sort of like a 12-1 ratio.

SHAPIRO: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

PARCAK: I typically spend about a month a year in the field. I wish it were the other way around.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

PARCAK: I mean, I love trying to get out in the field as much as I can because the best part is the digging, getting the dirt beneath your fingers. I tell people if my sand to blood ratio drops below a certain amount, you probably don't want to be around me anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: You describe so many moments in this book of pulling an object out of the Earth that, for me as a lay person, the only thing I can think about is that you're literally the first human in centuries to have laid eyes on this thing that was made by human hands longer ago than I can imagine. Will you just describe what that moment is like, what that feels like?

PARCAK: I remember the first time this happened. It was on an - my first excavation in Egypt 20 years ago. And I was working at a site in the northeast Egyptian Delta. So I was excavating down, found what looked like a piece of a pot. And then I realized it was actually an intact pot squished down that dated to about 4,200 years ago. And on the handle of that pot was a thumbprint.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

PARCAK: And I just had this vision of a larger man, you know, using a kick wheel making this pot from so long ago. And it was this moment that made me realize we're not actually digging for things. We're actually digging for people; the people who made these things. And that's what I try to remember no matter what I take out of the ground. I try to imagine the humans that made it that were so much like us in spite of being separated by thousands of years.

SHAPIRO: It's wild to think about people today wondering what they will leave behind when they die. And to think that that man more than 4,000 years ago, at some point, just pushed his finger into some soft clay. And that's the thing that, 4,000 years later, you lay eyes on for the first time in all of those thousands of years.

PARCAK: To me, this is the greatest privilege I have. You know, I feel like I'm adding little footnotes to the history of humanity one at a time with every little thing that I excavate. And I try to never take it for granted for a moment. I was at the National Geographic Queens Of Egypt exhibit yesterday and hearing everyone around me oohing and aahing over the objects. And I thought, this is my life. You know, this is...

(LAUGHTER)

PARCAK: These are my friends.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PARCAK: And it was just - it was - it's wonderful.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean the ancient people of Egypt are your friends?

PARCAK: Yes. I feel...

SHAPIRO: OK, not the tourists.

PARCAK: No. I mean, some of my real friends were there too.

SHAPIRO: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

PARCAK: But, yeah, I just - I guess I feel such kinship with these objects because I live in this world that's thousands of years old. And I have a hard time separating, sometimes, the past from the present.

SHAPIRO: When there are hundreds of thousands or millions of unmapped, undiscovered sites out there, what's the value in actually digging and understanding in as many of them as possible?

PARCAK: So if you imagine a jigsaw puzzle - right? - and the complete jigsaw puzzle represents the entirety of what existed in an ancient culture, what we archaeologists are dealing with are fragmentary pieces from maybe five or six of those jigsaw puzzle pieces, right? So it's just this teeny, tiny bit of evidence. So the more information that we have, the more puzzles - pieces that we're able to start to fit together, the bigger picture that we have from those civilizations. We say in archaeology it's not what you find. It's what you find out. And it's all about the bigger questions that you're able to ask, so it's one thing to know about five or six sites. What if you have information for 5,000 sites? I mean...

SHAPIRO: Like, what's a question that you would be able to answer with information from 5,000 sites that you personally are dying to answer?

PARCAK: Right. So what really caused ancient Egypt to collapse? And when we look at all the settlement data, when we look at all the social, political, economic and environmental data, we can look at these much bigger questions about, what caused it to rise? What caused it to fall? And now that we have more evidence, we can kind of - we can try to answer that question.

SHAPIRO: You look at the rise and fall of civilizations over eons. How does that scale and that perspective inform your understanding of the present-day rise and fall of political powers or acceleration of climate change or the other things that make Earth and humans on it seem to be caught in change faster than what any of us have experienced in our lifetimes?

PARCAK: I think today it can be really daunting. I'm asked more and more, you know, do you have any hope for our civilization today given everything that goes on? And what I tell people is that by looking at satellite images, I think I have the same perspective of Earth that astronauts have. I don't see borders. I see how connected we are. And by studying all these civilizations, by looking at all the things that cause some civilizations to rise, others to fall, others to muddle along and then rise and then fall, I think it's given me a little bit of hope - not like boundless hope but hope in that humans are very resilient. And in spite of all the terrible things that we have done to each other, I think we're 51% good.

(LAUGHTER)

PARCAK: So I hold - I try to hold on to that, especially being the parent of a young child.

SHAPIRO: Archaeologist Sarah Parcak - her new book is called "Archaeology From Space: How The Future Shapes Our Past."

Thanks so much.

PARCAK: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACKBOXX'S "A HAUNTING (MACONDO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.