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TED Prize winner Sarah Parcak unearths ancient mysteries on “60 Minutes”

What’s the best way to find something lost on the ground, like a historical site from a civilization lost to time? For archaeologist Sarah Parcak, the answer’s obvious — from way up above, using satellites, of course. As a space archaeologist, she’s mapped the lost city of Tanis (of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark fame) and identified thousands of other potential ancient sites in Iceland, Europe and across North Africa — and now she’s letting everyone in on the fun with her $1 million TED Prize wish, GlobalXplorer.

To get an up-close introduction to the revolutionary techniques of space archaeology, 60 Minutes joined Parcak at her tomb excavation site in Lisht, Egypt, a village 40 minutes south of Cairo with a history dating back more than 4,000 years.

When they arrived, the biggest find of the season had just been unearthed — a hand, and a piece of stone tablet describing a powerful man, inscribed with one name: Intef. Interestingly, the slab is damaged in a way that hints it might have been intentionally desecrated. “Did he step on too many people on his way to the top?” Parcak speculates. “Who was this guy? What did he do?”

“But that’s what makes archeology interesting,” says Parcak. “It’s like you’re reading the ancient version of the National Enquirer in slow time.”

Yet, ironically, archaeologists like Sarah are in a perpetual race against time — hoping to find and secure ancient sites before they can be looted.  

So far, less than 10% of the Earth has been explored and secured by archeologists, leaving many sites vulnerable to looting. For instance, after the Arab Spring in 2011, hundreds of ancient sites and antiquities in Egypt were left unprotected and open for pillage. Looking at satellite images, Parcak was able to identify some 800 places where looters were digging into unprotected tombs to bring out antiquities for sale. When they saw the satellite evidence of looting, the Egyptian government asked Parcak to excavate Intef’s tomb at Lisht, to preserve and protect what remains.

This isn’t a new development — looting, says Parcak, has been going on for thousands of years, at a cost to history that’s priceless.

“The most important thing for archeological discovery is context,” she tells 60 Minutes. “That’s why for us, as archeologists, looting is such a huge problem. Because when an object is taken out of its original context, we don’t know where it comes from. We can’t tell you anything about it aside from, ‘Well, it’s a mummy, or, ‘It’s a statue.’ But that’s kind of it. The story doesn’t get told.”

Which is why Parcak is so excited about GlobalXplorer, which lets thousands of people help pore over satellite maps together to find potentially historic sites — which local governments can then help secure for future generations to learn from. Join her and thousands of other citizen scientists (now scouring Peru) in the fight to protect history and our global heritage.