Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah ParcakArchaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah Parcak

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah ParcakArchaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past (2019), by Sarah Parcak, is an entertainingly informative mix of popular science, memoir, and even some fiction. Parcak does an excellent job of bringing the rarified field of remote sensing down to earth, in both literal and metaphorical fashion.

Remote sensing is a relatively new tool in science and, in particular, in archaeology. Parcak dates its use in the field from 1906, when a lieutenant of the Royal Engineer’s Balloon Section used a tethered balloon to take photos of Stonehenge and “a new world had been opened up from on high.” She traces the evolution of the science and engineering through both World Wars (her grandfather, “Grampy,” was a WWII paratrooper who applied his knowledge of aerial photography to forestry), government and private flights, and on into the space era, beginning in 1970 with Mary Marguerite Scalera, who “receives credit as the first person to predict correctly the future of space archaeology.” The field exploded in the 80s and has continued to expand and improve, as she shows through detailing its various applications and the enhanced capabilities, such as more wavelengths, ever-increasing resolution, and the move in recent years to crowd-sourcing data (which she invites her audience to take part in). Parcak, in an imaginative rush, even presents a brief story set in the future showing how the technology might progress even further: virtual reality, holograms, digs on exoplanets, and “digbots.” The author’s imagination comes into play, as well, in several relatively long interludes where she imagines the life of a family in ancient Egypt to highlight how archaeology isn’t just an examination of artifacts, of things, but is a way to learn more about people (including us, as more than once Parcak makes the point that learning about the past can help guide our own future).

Along with explaining how remote sensing works and charting its development, Parcak also shows its great impact on the field, including highly up to date examples such as a late-2018 discovery of 91 pre-Columbian sites in the Amazon basin region of Brazil, which leads to an extrapolation of nearly 18,000. Some of the results she covers quickly, even performing a whirlwind tour of the world in one section, touching down lightly and quickly in a host of regions. These brief examples are counter-balanced by several lengthy, in-depth digs she herself worked on and/or led. These include a multi-year dig in Egypt (her own specialty), another in Iceland, and yet another in Newfoundland where she and her colleagues search for evidence of Norse settlement.

Moving back and forth between space and the Earth is both a good structure and also reinforces one of her constant points of emphasis — that whatever is discovered via remote sensing can only be verified by actual boots on the ground and trowels in the dirt (or sand). These more memoiristic scenes add a nice touch of the personal to Archaeology from Space, and also do a great job of conveying just what is involved in both excavating and being a dig director — the actual work, the administration, the juggling of costs. They also convey Parcak’s obvious enthusiasm for her field and love for her job, which she notes of her colleagues: “we would all do it for free. Most of us have worked for free, at some point, though we shouldn’t have to.” One of the more fascinating applications of remote sensing (I could see an entire book on the topic) is in trying to stop the sale of illegal antiquities. Our entry point into that dark world comes via a National Geographic story on looting when Parcak walks into “an imposing light-brick building with faux windows … a storage facility for confiscated art — things collected by the rich and famous of New York … where boxes of every imaginable shape and size were stacked floor to ceiling, just like the scene from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark” (not the first Indy reference, btw — she even met Harrison Ford and had her picture taken with him).

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past has an engaging voice throughout, clearly explains its science and technology in terms of both how it works and its impact, nicely balances the personal and the objective, and looks forward as much as it looks into the past. It even lets the audience get into the game themselves via the Globalxplorer crowd sourcing organization. Strongly recommended.

Published in July 2019. National Geographic Explorer and TED Prize-winner Dr. Sarah Parcak welcomes you to the exciting new world of space archaeology, a growing field that is sparking extraordinary discoveries from ancient civilizations across the globe.In Archaeology from Space, Sarah Parcak shows the evolution, major discoveries, and future potential of the young field of satellite archaeology. From surprise advancements after the declassification of spy photography, to a new map of the mythical Egyptian city of Tanis, she shares her field’s biggest discoveries, revealing why space archaeology is not only exciting, but urgently essential to the preservation of the world’s ancient treasures. Parcak has worked in twelve countries and four continents, using multispectral and high-resolution satellite imagery to identify thousands of previously unknown settlements, roads, fortresses, palaces, tombs, and even potential pyramids. From there, her stories take us back in time and across borders, into the day-to-day lives of ancient humans whose traits and genes we share. And she shows us that if we heed the lessons of the past, we can shape a vibrant future.