In July 1911, the American academic Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the (re)discovery of a lifetime: the ruins of the Incan city Machu Picchu in Peru. The 35-year-old Yale lecturer had been formally trained neither as an archeologist, nor as an anthropologist. (He studied and taught Latin American history.)
Now Sarah Parcak, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and winner of the 2016 TED Prize, is extending Bingham’s legacy by bringing the opportunity to explore ancient ruins to, well, anyone.
Debuting Monday, her “GlobalXplorer” project uses satellite imagery and crowdsourced citizen science—that means volunteers, potentially like yourself, dear reader—to map terrain and identify unknown archaeological sites in Peru. No prior experience necessary.
“This is a dream started by Hiram Bingham, but we are expanding it to the world,” she said in a TED talk first introducing the initiative at the June 2016 TEDSummit in Banff, Canada. Her goal, she said, was “making archeological exploration more open, inclusive, and at a scale simply not previously possible.”
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With $1 million in prize money and partnerships with the National Geographic Society and satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe, Parcak has helped design an online program that serves up satellite images to participants. After a brief tutorial, the volunteers parse data—for instance, identifying vegetation patterns that indicate the presence of human-made architecture—and earn rewards, such as factoids and multimedia related to Peruvian culture as well as virtual tours of on-the-ground excavators.
The program, available in English and Spanish, uses images stripped of identifying information to prevent looters from exploiting the platform for their own ill-gotten gain. Parcak is also partnering with Peru’s Ministry of Culture and the nonprofit cultural heritage organization Sustainable Preservation Initiative in order to protect the sites once they’re discovered.
The project is far more than an academic diversion in Parcak’s view. Its mission is imperative and urgent to rescue the world’s heritage from the accelerating encroachment of raiders and ransackers in recent years.
“We’ve seen looting of sites so rampant it looks like craters of the moon,” Parcak said in a more recent TED talk filmed in November. In the presentation, she decried the destructive interference of criminal and terror groups, like the self-identified Islamic State, often abbreviated as ISIS or ISIL. The group has been raiding and demolishing temples and tombs, pillaging their treasures for profit.
“This means that any object purchased on the market today from the Middle East could potentially be funding terrorism,” Parcak said. She labeled the plunderage “ancient identity theft writ large.”
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The team has marketed the GlobalXplorer project as “Indiana Jones meets Google Earth.” Indeed, Bingham, whom Parcak honors, is cited by many as a possible inspiration for the swashbuckling excavator depicted in the adventure series from filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
GlobalXplorer is first launching with Peru as its focus, already home to well-known sites such as Bingham’s Machu Picchu and the Nazca lines. The country has an arid climate that helps to preserve artifacts, a trait that archaeologists favor.
Furthermore, the Sustainable Preservation Initiative—a partner that trains locals to set up businesses based on cultural heritage, like artisan crafts—has a proven track record in the area. The organization has nine Peruvian sites under its purview to date, four of which are self-sustaining: Pachacamac, San Jose de Moro, Chotuna, and Bandurria.
After the initial $1 million from TED is spent, the GlobalXplorer program plans to count on donations for funding. The team hopes to expand to its next region, presently unidentified, in late 2017.
All space archeologists, amateur or expert, are welcome.