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American space archaeologist and fan of Indiana Jones: GlobalXplorer° founder marshalling netizens for heritage conservation

Archaeology is one of the four branches of anthropology, and as Prof Maria Tam stated, the Department of Anthropology in CUHK focuses on sociocultural anthropology (and she is a cultural anthropologist herself). Nevertheless, to keep abreast of developments in heritage excavation and conservation, a minor programme in archaeology has been established lately. Students might not be adventuring like Indiana Jones, but the thrill of coming face to face with unearthed relics is undoubtedly part of the syllabus.

Reviewing our past and understanding our future with technology

Quite a few archaeology projects are underway in Hong Kong. We may not be taking part directly, but technology has enabled us to virtually experience the fun and contribute to heritage protection. Developed by American space archaeologist and Egyptologist Sarah Parcak, the GlobalXplorer° project is an option. Just sit comfortably at home, go through satellite photos, and help pin down historical sites which have potentially been raided!

American space archaeologist Sarah Parcak founded GlobalXplorer°, hoping to mobilise netizens to put a stop to looting at ancient sites. (Photo: GlobalXplorer° website)

Parcak graduated from Yale University in 2001 majoring in Egyptology and archaeological studies, before pursuing a PhD at Cambridge and becoming an anthropology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The now 41-year-old revealed to The Guardian last year that the early Indiana Jones series played a part in sparking her archaeology dream.

The big shot of the field is adept at utilising satellite photos, observing the earth surface at a distance and looking for clues that suggest ancient relics buried beneath. While some are easily noticed with naked eyes, others require technologies as infrared and artificial intelligence, coupled with geological, historical and cultural knowledge of archaeologists, to augment the chances of uncovering historic sites. Thousands of Mayan sites in Guatemala were brought to light in recent years thanks to Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar), a remote sensing technique.

According to Parcak, space archaeology made an appearance in as early as the 1980s, but received limited attention until 2005, when a wider application of satellite technology began. The National Geographic described Parcak as the field’s pioneer – up till 2011, she and her team unearthed as many as 17 previously unknown pyramids and 3,000 ancient settlements.

You will find Parcak and her team’s work in multiple BBC documentaries, including Egypt’s Lost Cities, Rome’s Lost Empire and Vikings Unearthed.

▼ How serious an issue is looting? Sarah Parcak explains it all.

Power of the crowd

Technological advancements empowered her quest for antiquities with efficiency at lower costs, yet also revealed to her the alarming extent of looting. Evident from years of satellite photos, ever since the global economic crisis in 2009 and the Arab Spring in 2011, looting in Egypt grew rampant. 250 thousand “looting pits” have been recorded within nine years, turning Egyptian sites into the moon’s surface, precious artefacts winding up as spoils.

This was why Parcak, upon receiving the TED Prize in 2016, decided to build the online platform GlobalXplorer° with her US$1 million grant, harnessing the power of citizen scientists to identify illegal excavations and combat antiquities trafficking.

Their first stop was Peru, home of the legendary Machu Picchu. After registering at the website, netizens undergo simple training to tell apart suspicious pits, before being assigned satellite images to get to work. 96,000 volunteers have joined the campaign to date. The army of global explorers will be making their way to India next.

Parcak joked that her husband is her greatest discovery ever. (Photo: TED Conference / flickr)

“The greatest discovery: My husband”

The inspirational speaker revealed at TED2016 that her favourite discovery thus far was made during her debut expedition in Egypt, when she met her husband (Greg Mumford, fellow archaeologist and colleague). She called this her first lesson in “finding unexpected, wonderful things”.

She highlighted another enlightenment she had as an archaeologist. She was digging at an ancient tomb dating to 4,200 years ago, eventually finding an intact container. As she looked closely, she noticed a prehistoric human thumbprint on top, “at that moment I realised, when we dig (at archaeological sites), we’re digging for people, not things.”

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS

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