Culture Heroes: Sarah Parcak | Nat Geo Live

(fast tempo symphony music) (applause) Sarah:Thank you all. My work initially started
with using satellite imagery to map ancient landscapes. I’ve been working in Egypt
for 15 years. I have to say that
I never expected to be doing looting mapping. But I got started almost at
the beginning of my PhD work. The site you see in
the lower left-hand corner, is called Tel El-Tabila. It’s located in the
northeast Egyptian Delta about two hours
to the northeast of Cairo. It’s a multi-period
archaeological site. Dates to primarily to the late
period, so roughly 600 BC. When the Napoleonic Expedition
visited Egypt in the 1800s, the site was fairly large. Over 1000 by 1000 meters
in size. Over time, due to agricultural
growth and encroachment, the site has been decreasing
and decreasing in size, and you can actually
see just how much the site has shrunk
in the last 200 years. This is one site in Egypt, and look at the number
of square meters – it’s shrunk. And we’ve been able to
track this using old maps, old spy photographs
from the 1960s, declassified information, aerial photographs,
as well as satellite imagery. And as I continued with
my thesis research, I realized that
this was not just the
story at Tel El-Tabila. This is the story of many,
if not all, of Egypt’s archaeological sites. And this is not just
the story of Egypt. This is something that’s
going on all over the world. Of course my work
focuses in Egypt, but we’re beginning
to do work in other countries, and this is a global problem. So that’s the take-away
I want you to have today, is that this is something
that is going on all over the world,
and we now have the technology, tools, and
resources to map the problem and begin to strategize
about ways of stopping it. Because ours is truly
the last generation that will be able to
do something about it before these sites
are gone forever. When we think of
Egypt, of course we always think of Egypt’s
greatest discovery, that of the tomb of King Tut. But what’s interesting, and
no one really knows this, is that the tomb of King
Tut was not totally intact, it had actually been
looted in antiquity. That’s something else
that we need to bring up. A lot of looting that goes on
on archaeological sites, this is not a modern phenomenon, this is something
that’s been going on. This is a very human trait. When Howard Carter
opened King Tut’s tomb, and looked at the vessels
that contained unguents – ancient perfumes and creams, there were actually
finger marks. You have to think, if you’re
going to take something from King Tut’s tomb and
you walk into the market with a gold scarab with
King Tut’s name on it, people are going to
wonder where it came from. Versus a handful of an unguent
that you can easily sell on. I’m just bringing that up
as an example to show that there’s a great history of this
going on in Egypt. In January of 2011, my
career changed quite a bit. Following the Egyptian
revolution, we started hearing rumors of archaeological sites
being looted. We didn’t know what was
rumor and what was truth. Of course everyone
here knows about the Cairo museum, with
objects being taken. The Egyptian government
has done an incredible job in tracking these objects down. They’ve managed to find many of the objects
that were taken, and they’re actually going
on display at the Cairo museum. With support from
National Geographic, as well as Digital Globe, they’re a very large provider of
high-resolution satellite data, we were able to get a hold
of satellite images showing that there
was looting going on. The question that we
started asking is, “What’s the scale?” “Where is it happening?” And “Why is it happening?” As I’ve been doing this
research, I’ve learned this is not a straight-forward
black or white issue. What would we do if we were
villagers and times were hard? What would we do
to feed our families? This is an issue
that’s tied in very deeply with economic development, with local opportunities
for individuals, education. We can’t really point the finger at any one individual
or any one entity. This is something much
more complicated than that. My work started off being
focused on two main sites. One area being the pyramid
fields just south of Cairo and an area called el-Lisht, which is about two
hours south of Cairo. It’s a very well-known zone for the Middle Kingdom,
roughly 1800 BC. But since then, it’s expanded. I’ll talk more
about that shortly. Here you see before
and after imagery. We have to be very careful when we’re doing this mapping
in recognizing when looting has happened,
when it has taken place, and acknowledging
that a lot of looting that’s gone on in Egypt
and elsewhere of course has been going on
for a long time. Fortunately, I had really good
satellite imagery coverage for most of the main areas
of Egypt, and also, there’s wonderful
open source online access to satellite data with resources like Google Earth and NASA’s
Visible Earth program. This data is available to
everyone all over the world. You can see
comparing this image, this is from south Abu Seer, just a little bit
south of Cairo. This is an image from 2009. The image on the right is an
image from February 15th, 2011. And you can see there are
about 220 looting pits. It’s pretty easy to see it. You see a black rectangle surrounded by
a doughnut of earth. We go in,
we actually use a tool, draw the number of looting pits, you can actually see in
the upper right-hand corner, bulldozing marks,
which is, again, a sign of more
organized activity. This is another
thing we’re tracking, who’s doing the looting? Is it gangs of youths
going in digging up a few looting pits,
trying to find treasure, versus organized
criminal activity? What we’re seeing in Egypt,
and indeed in many
parts of the world, is that looting is changing. It is a global problem,
and it is something that has deep connections with
global criminal activities. With the support of Deborah at the Capitol
Archeological Institute and the International Coalition for the Protection of
Egyptian Antiquities, at the very kind invitation
of Egypt’s foreign ministry, in May of 2011, we went to Egypt to meet with a number
of officials and also to visit some of these
looting pits on the ground. A really critical part
of satellite imagery, of course, is ground truthing. You go and you examine
for yourself to see, is what the satellite imagery
is showing what you think it is. What people might not know is the incredible
deep knowledge that local people in Egypt
have of their history. Many individuals,
as it turns out, who were involved
with the looting, or at least we think were
involved with the looting, had experience with
archaeological excavations. They knew where
to look for tombs. You can see us standing
in front of it. That’s definitely
my unhappy face. (chuckles) I prefer to be digging. You can see it’s fairly deep. They knew exactly where to go. The big question, then, is
“Were these tombs intact?” How can we really know if, when
we get there, they’re empty? You can see where I’m standing
on the left-hand side, you can see bits of human bone, little bits from sarcophagi,
broken pottery. By the way, you can’t
see it from this picture, but they had fresh breaks, so I think many of these tombs
that have been looted actually were partially
to almost fully intact. This gets at a really
crucial issue for mapping archaeological site
looting all over the world. The most important thing
that we need is an inventory. Not just of the objects,
which is absolutely crucial, but an inventory of the number of archaeological sites
in that country. And what may be
shocking to hear is that there’s no single country
in the entire world that has a comprehensive
database of every single known
archaeological site. This is the 21st century. This information should be
open, it should be online, and we simply don’t
have this information. I want to show you a
little bit about how much
things have changed in the last three years
at one particular site and then talk to you about what we’re doing
about this right now. And how we’re hoping
that this work will change public perceptions
and hopefully, in working in conjunction
with the Egyptian Government, begin to protect some of these
sites that are under threat. This is an image
of a very well known archaeological zone, Dahshur. They’re a series of
Middle Kingdom pyramids, again these are from
roughly 1800 BC. The top image is from 2009. You can see the
tip of a pyramid, just the black edge just
to the south of the image, you see what looks
like looting pits. Those aren’t. Those are actually
exposed tomb shafts. And things look okay, you
don’t see much looting. Flash ahead to May of 2011. We’re starting to see
some looting pits. Not many, maybe 15 or 20. Not too bad. 2012, maybe 100 to 150 pits. But 2013, things start
getting really bad. We see about 450
to 500 looting pits, and even more concerning is the significant extension
of the cemetery. This is an illegal cemetery. This is a big problem in Egypt and in many parts of the world. There simply aren’t
enough places for the Egyptians to bury
their dead, so there’s a lot of illegal encroachment
on archaeological sites. What do we do about this? How do we begin to
map this problem? With generous funding
from National Geographic, we are in the midst of
the first comprehensive looting mapping project
for an entire country. We’re using satellite imagery that’s openly available
and online, using Google Earth,
as well as additional sources, and we’re going back
12 years in time, from 2002 to the present. And we’re looking at every known archaeological site
in Egypt plus many thousands of others that I’ve been able to find
through my research, and looking at the history of
site looting all over Egypt. And what’s
fascinating, right now, if you don’t know the time
period of a looted site, you simply can’t
begin to think about what objects might
be looted from it, and you can’t inform
Interpol and the Carabinieri and US Customs
and international authorities as to what might be taken. What we do know from all of
these thousands of known sites is their time period. So we can go to international
entities and say, “We have 57 sites
from 600 BC that have
extensive site looting. Here is a typical tomb group
from the late period. It would have
a stone sarcophagus. Here are the types of pottery that come from
that particular site. Here are the shabtis, here are
other objects and artifacts from that time period.” So we can begin, from space, even though we can’t zoom in
and see a single pot. Based on the time period
known from that site, we can begin to come
up with inventories for international
authorities to look for. What about more broadly? With generous funding from the
National Science Foundation, I will be working directly with the Egyptian Ministry
of Antiquities to set up training programs
for young Egyptians. These are the men
and the women that are really the true
unsung culture heroes of post- and
pre-revolution Egypt. There’s a gentleman
named Omar Farouk, who’s a very dear
friend of mine. He is our head fixer in Luxor. His family has been doing archaeological work in Egypt
for 150 years. His great-grandfather
was Petrie’sreis, the chief-boss Egyptian
who worked with Petrie, the grandfather of
Egyptian archaeology. Omar and a group of young men, just after the revolution
started, were under gunfire, an attack,
at Karnak Temple in Luxor. And they actually managed
to fight off a gang of looters, risking their own lives
to protect this site. There are so many dozens of
stories like that all over Egypt so we’re hoping through
educational initiatives to work with young
Egyptian men and women, to provide them tools
and resources like Google Earth
and other resources for them to be able to take part
in protecting their sites. So more broadly, what do we do? We’re hoping that this
is just the first step. What we want to do
is we want to create crowd-sourcing opportunities
for the world, so it’s not just me
and my students doing this work in my lab,
but actually students and individuals
from all over the world can help in the search
for looting everywhere. We also want to emphasize just how important it is for
countries all over the world to have good site-inventories. Because if you don’t know
where your sites are, how in the world can you
begin to protect them? While I would love to get back to my search
for settlements and pyramids, this is very important for me, and certainly something
that I know I will be devoting
the rest of my life to doing, and with new technologies
and new advancements, this is something that simply would not have been possible
15 to 20 years ago. I think the urgency is here. It’s time for our generation
to do something about this. Because as we’ve
been able to map, every day we’re mapping
thousands of looting pits, we’re seeing over a 1000%
increase in site looting since the start
of the revolution. And billions of dollars
in antiquities that we’ve estimated to date,
that have been stolen. And if we think
this is Egypt alone, and you begin to scale that,
all over the world, I couldn’t give a number right
now off the top of my head, but it would be very large. This is a global issue, and the time is now
to do something about it. Thank you very much. (applause) (mid-tempo music)

  1. Love NG all you want, but the fact nobody seemed to grasp the implications of what was uncovered is baffling. These 1,100 cities shouldn't exist according to conventional archeology/science. Yet there it is, and much like the work of Dr. Carmen Butler the implications will continue to be pushed aside until it is wiped from the minds. There is a completely different history around the world beneath our feet than what the standard dogma will admit, and thats the real crime of todays science.

  2. Egypt is truly one of a kind in ancient empiors, the brilliance, the beauty and scale is unuiqe, would be devastating if it would be lost to tomb raidors

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