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Reality Capture Helps Space Archaeologist Win the 2016 TED Prize

Reality Capture Guru
April 26, 2016

ReCap Helps Space Archaeologist Win the 2016 TED Prize

The winner of this year’s coveted TED Prize is space archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who is using Reality Computing concepts—capture and compute—to search for lost archaeological sites!

In case you’re unfamiliar with TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), it’s a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short TED talks at TED conferences. And every year, the organization awards a $1 million TED Prize to someone who has “a creative, bold vision to spark global change”.

Parcak is an anthropologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham as well as a National Geographic fellow. She is a pioneer in the use of satellite imagery to map and monitor possible subsurface archaeological sites. To identify sites for archaeological exploration, Parcak and her team capture high-resolution aerial images of the earth using satellite-based, remote sensing technology with infrared and thermal capabilities. These images are then processed with computer algorithms to virtually uncover subsurface sites and structures of past civilizations.

Reality Capture Helps Space Archaeologist Win the 2016 TED

For example, imported stone used by ancient Egyptian builders may be covered in sand today, but the chemicals in that stone may have affected the chemicals in the soil—leaving a signature on the visible above-ground landscape. During wet periods in Egypt, buried ancient mud brick walls will absorb more moisture and become denser than the ground around them. Infrared satellite imagery can display different colors corresponding to different densities and therefore help reveal outlines of buried structures.

One recent space archaeology investigation by Parcak might lead to the first new Viking site discovered in North America in over 50 years. This effort was recently documented on the PBS science series NOVA. The team started by using Google Earth imagery of Canada’s eastern shoreline to look for circular or rectangular anomalies in vegetation health that might point to subsurface structures. After identifying about 50 areas of interest, the team got high-resolution aerial photography for these areas, which in turn helped them narrow the search down to three sites. For those sites, they processed high-resolution multi-spectral satellite imagery to see the chemical signatures of those sites, which narrowed the search to just two sites. At that point, they reverted to ground survey and excavations that have uncovered buried structural remnants and materials at one site that would be in keeping with a Norse settlement.

Reality Capture Helps Space Archaeologist Win the TED Prize

TED announced in November 2015 that Parcak is the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. Her $1 million award will help build Global Xplorer. Similar to her own space archaeology work, this online science platform will use Reality Computing concepts to help anyone with an Internet browser uncover archaeological sites and monitor looting.

Check out these articles and videos about Parcak and her work with remote sensing and reality capture for archaeology:


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