RACHEL MARTIN, host:
In Egypt, archeology is big business. And when you think of that industry, you think of shovels, brushes, brooms, other time-honored tools used to uncover archeological treasures.
Not so for Sarah Parcak. She led a team of archeologists who used satellites with infrared technology to identify tombstones, houses, even pyramids that have been lost for 4,000 years.
The team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham has been studying images of the ancient city of Tanis in Egypt. These images were taken by special satellite cameras orbiting above the Earth.
Sarah Parcak joins me now form WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, to talk more about these discoveries.
Dr. SARAH PARCAK (Archeologist): Hey.
MARTIN: Thanks for joining us. So walk me through really how this works. I mean, when you think about infrared, you maybe think about thermal heat tracking or night vision. How do you actually use infrared to find buried structures?
Dr. PARCAK: We have been using a lot of NASA satellites in addition to high resolution images. And what these satellites do is they record light radiation that's reflected off the surface of the Earth in different parts of the light spectrum. And we use false color imaging to try to tease out these very subtle differences on the ground.
So, for example, if, you know, you're walking over, say, a floodplain in Egypt and you just see rice, or you're walking over a modern town and it's obscuring an ancient archeological site, then you just pull back for hundreds of miles using the satellite imagery, and all of a sudden this invisible world becomes visible, and you're actually able to see settlements and tombs, and even things like buried pyramids that you might not otherwise be able to see, just because they affect the soil and geology and vegetation that's above them.
MARTIN: So how many of these pyramids did you actually find, and how big were they?
Dr. PARCAK: There were 17 structures that appeared that seemed to have a similar size, shape and orientation as other known pyramids in the area. Of course, we're not going to be able to say with a hundred percent certainty that they are pyramids until they're excavated.
MARTIN: What kind of shape are these structures in? I mean, can you tell when you're looking at the satellite images? Are they simply covered over with sand and they're intact relatively, or could you determine whether or not they've been looted and then maybe buried or reburied even?
Dr. PARCAK: Right. You can theorize as much as you want about what you think you're seeing, but until you get out there and dig, which, of course, is the really fun part, you can't tell exactly what it is. At a place like Tanis, we were able to partner with a French archaeological team that's been working there for 25, 30 years. And we visited the site, we visited the team's excavations, and we had before us a structure that matched perfectly, almost perfectly I should say, what the satellite imagery showed.
But for me, what was really exciting and hinted at the future potential of this technology is that if we've confirmed that we've seen, you know, a house, then for the whole plan of Tanis, you know, I think we can say with relative certainty that that plan is going to be accurate.
MARTIN: So you're saying that the good old-fashioned art of digging up one of these treasures is - could potentially go away?
Dr. PARCAK: Well, you know, the 5-year-old in me that jumps up and down every time I get off the plane in Egypt, you know, and can't wait to get to a site and excavate, hopes that that's never the case. But, you know, let's think about what's going on in the world. You know, we have so many issues with overpopulation and urbanization and site looting. And this isn't just Egypt. This is everywhere in the world, even in America.
So we only have a limited amount of time left before many archaeological sites all over the world are destroyed. So we have to be really selective about where we dig and what approaches we take. We've got to map all of our ancient history before it's gone, because let's face it, if we don't have a common heritage to share, something to get excited about, then what are we living for?
MARTIN: That's Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist and the founding director for the Laboratory for Global Health Observation at the University of Alabama Birmingham. Her team's discovery will be featured on a May 30th BBC documentary called "Egypt's Lost Cities."
Sarah Parcak, thank you so much.
Dr. PARCAK: Thank you very much.