Real-life 'Indiana Jones' recruits you to help save the world's antiquities

Sarah Parcak, 'space archaeologist' and winner of the 2016 TED Prize, announced on Tuesday her plan to create a citizen science platform, so users can help map antiquities sites in the Middle East and stop looting. 

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Looters dig through the sand, sifting and unearthing Roman and Pharaonic antiquities to sell on June 26, 2013 in Sheikh Ibada, Egypt. An Egyptologist who won the 2016 TED Prize announced Tuesday a citizen science platform to map and ultimately prevent such looting.

Global Xplorer sounds like a video game. Users log on, watch a quick tutorial, then receive a digital card with a satellite image of 400 to 2,500 square meters of ground. "Players" then scan for tombs and list what they find, earning score points as they go. 

But Global Xplorer is actually a citizen science project developed by an Egyptologist who won the 2016 $1 million TED Prize, and she hopes it will slow the looting of humanity's cultural sites in the Middle East, the BBC's Jane Wakefield reported.

"Archaeology is currently at a tipping point," Sarah Parcak, archaeologist and founding director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told a TED audience when she accepted the 2016 TED Prize, according to the BBC.            "[Islamic State] is blowing up and looting temples in Iraq and Syria. If we don't do something, these sites will be gone."

Ms. Parcak, a so-called space archaeologist because she uses satellite images to find uncatalogued archaeological sites, has been compared to Indiana Jones of the 1980s adventure films. As began focusing her research on Egypt, it became clear that looters can plunder a tomb before archaeologists even realize it exists. Parcak found that as the Middle East became more unstable, looting of ancient sites doubled several times over, Heather Pringle reported for National Geographic.

"The reality is we are losing the battle against looting,” she said, according to National Geographic. “Archaeologists have limited resources, and we need to scale up big time.” 

She announced at TED Tuesday that she is using her $1 million prize to create a platform where people around the world can conduct research the same way she does. Parcak designed the project not only to save humanity's ancient cultural heritage from looting, but also to give non-scholars a greater understanding of their stake in that heritage. She called the citizen science project "invert[ing] the pyramids." 

"A hundred years ago, archaeology was for the rich. Fifty years ago, it was mainly for men. Now, it is primarily for academics," Parcak said in her talk, according to LifeScience. "Our goal is to democratize the process of archeological discovery and allow anyone to participate."

To discourage looters from using the tool to locate new sites, Global Xplorer will provide users with images, but not their GPS point or location on a map. That information will be accessible only to a specialist with vetted credentials, according to a TED press release. 

"I wish for us to discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites across the globe," she said, according to the BBC. "By creating a 21st-century army of global explorers, we'll find and protect the world's hidden heritage, which contains humankind's collective resilience and creativity."

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