Dr. Sarah Parcak is an associate professor of Anthropology, director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama, won the 2016 TED prize for her talk on satellite imagery and its use in unearthing ruins, and has the coolest job title in the world.
Parcak is a "space archeologist", which means that she uses satellite data to find "subtle differences in vegetation health, which you literally cannot see visibly" in order to determine if there are anomalies below the earth's surface. The presence of anomalies may mean there are ruins below, and can alert archeologists to the precise location. She said that her work can be imagined best if you think of what would happen if "Indiana Jones had a lovechild with Google Earth".
Using this method, Parcak has located 17 potential pyramids, 3,100 lost settlements, and over one thousand tombs. She told Colbert that the presences of ruins below the surface can be indicated by small differences in the light spectrum around local vegetation. Infared imagery is combined with computer algorithms to help Parcak determine which sites are worth further investigation far better than she could by relying on the human eye alone.
The TED prize is awarded annually to an individual "with a creative, bold vision to spark global change". The prize is a one million dollar investment into the recipient's "bold vision" for change. Parcak will give another talk on February 16, 2016 that will also serve as a launching point for her one million dollar project. Her goal is to "help protect the world's cultural heritage" by locating and preserving ancient ruins around the globe.
When on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Parcak brought Colbert an "Indiana Jones hat", and discussed the way the satellite analysis works. Basically speaking, they look at the health of the vegetation in the area to determine where the ground beneath contain more than just dirt. Parcak used visual aids that she had brought with her from a variety of sites, including Tanis. Tanis was where Indinia Jones found the clues leading him to the Ark of the Covenant; a fact that Colbert not only remembered, but could barely contain his excitement as he explained it to Parcak.
Watch the Parcak on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert below:
You can also watch Parcak's first TED talk below: