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Commentary: Sarah Parcak’s TED Prize – Can International Crowdsourcing Replace Source Country Commitment?

February 24, 2016.  By Kate Fitz Gibbon.   Speaking in Vancouver on February 16, Dr. Sarah Parcak proposed using her $1 million TED Prize to build an online “interactive citizen science program” to engage the public in monitoring archaeological sites and to share the information gathered with archaeologists and local authorities. Parcak, an Egyptologist, is known as a “space archaeologist” because she uses infra-red imaging techniques on NASA and commercial satellite images to identify potential archaeological sites on the ground. Chemical changes on the ground surfaces that are visible at infra-red light levels show that there are man-made objects and structures buried underground.

Dr. Parcak now wishes to share the millions of global satellite images available with the public and to use international volunteers to identify possible sites. The result could be an incredibly detailed archaeological “map” of the world. The proposal, generously funded by Dr. Parcak, is being organized and is expected to debut this summer.

Her project, however valuable its contribution to archaeological studies, also points to the fatal weakness in nationalist claims that art and archaeology are best protected when they are exclusively controlled by the governments of modern nations where art is found. As other posts this month on Egypt make clear, there is rampant government corruption in Cairo and elsewhere, and blatant indifference to flawed management in the museum hierarchy. The cultural sector appears to be valued most for its usefulness as propaganda and to promote tourism. The same government that demands the right to repatriation of all the art ever made in Egypt is busy crushing democracy, arresting and torturing journalists, and sentencing people to death by the hundreds in sham trials. Egypt’s government seems much more concerned about artifacts found in the ground than it is about putting innocent people into it.

Dr. Parcak’s Egyptian archaeologist colleagues undoubtedly share her selfless commitment to science. She probably shares many of their frustrations with the Egyptian government and its entrenched bureaucracy. Perhaps she can shame Egyptian officials into protecting archaeological sites by enlisting a corps of international volunteers to document them and make their preservation an issue on the Internet. But one has to ask – when a government is using archaeology to promote cultural nationalist propaganda, is there a point when an archaeologist has to stand up and say, “What this government is doing is wrong. I have to speak up.”

In order to truly benefit from Dr. Parcak’s proposal, even on purely archaeological matters, source nations will  have to commit significant resources to protect and excavate the archaeological sites identified through her program. Most archeologically rich nations have consistently failed to adequately fund scientific research or site protection. Government neglect of cultural heritage sites and the priority given to infrastructure development has been a primary cause of archaeological site loss worldwide.

Dr. Parcak is undoubtedly correct in believing that public education about heritage protection is one of the most effective means of halting looting. Unfortunately, like others in the archaeological field, although she acknowledges that endemic poverty and government inertia account for some digging in search of artifacts, she also links the current destruction in the Middle East to a supposedly huge market demand from the West for looted artifacts.  The evidence of attempted looting is real enough, as shown in the thousands of tiny pits shown on satellite images. There is no empirical evidence for the supposed billion dollar market.

At the same time that scientific research and detailed analysis enables discovery of ancient sites, shouldn’t scientists use real data to identify the economic and other local factors that cause looting in the first place? Currently available technology could enable both documentation of artifacts and a traceable, legitimate trade, and would be of inestimable value to researchers. A serious commitment to determine the realities of the art market is a necessary part of finding a solution to looting. So is a serious analysis of the flaws of the ‘repatriation over all’ approach to preserving global human heritage.


Note: In a parallel exercise of archival research, for the last two years, the Smithsonian Institution has opened the Smithsonian Transcription Center  to public access and has enlisted volunteers from around the world to review and transcribe diaries, field notes, specimen labels, logbooks and more from the Smithsonian archives. Volunteers can contribute anonymously or create an account to track their work. Once volunteers have an account, they may review the work of others and make edits where necessary. Each week, new projects are added, and the Smithsonian accepts public input on the collections next to be transcribed.

The Aerial Archaeology Research Group (AARG), founded in 1983, is just one of many entities coordinating archaeological research from the air. Identifying archaeological sites from the air is a technique that has been utilized for many decades and has provided the key information in major discoveries. For example, Russian archaeologist Victor Sarianidi used helicopters from the Turkmenistan army in the 1980s to overfly the vast Karakum desert, pinpointing the location of close to 30 hitherto unknown Bronze Age sites from the slight unnatural variations in the landscape below perceptible with the human eye.

Image: Dr. Sarah Parcak, author Joi Ito, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license,

Ancient Central Asian Earthworks Discovered in Kazakhstan

November 1, 2015. NASA photographs have revealed colossal earthworks in a remote part of the Central Asian steppe in present day Kazakhstan, some dating to 8000 years ago, possibly making them the oldest such constructions in the world. Approximately 260 earthworks – mounds, trenches and ramparts – form geometric and swirling shapes between 300 and 1300 feet in diameter. The individual mounds were originally 6 to 10 feet high and are still 3 feet high and nearly 40 feet across.

The discovery of the ancient mounds, which date from a time when nomadic hunters are thought to have ranged in the steppe, call for a rethinking of the level of organized culture at the time.

The ancient earthworks were first spotted by Kazakh economist, Dmitriy Dey, on Google Earth. An archaeological team from Kostanay University in Kazakhstan and Vilnius University in Lithuania has been studying the earthworks over the last year, using traditional excavation and ground-penetrating radar, a nondestructive technique in which high-frequency radio waves are bounced off the ground and the reflected signals can reveal buried objects or structures. The team presented its initial results at the European Association of Archaeologists’ annual meeting in Istanbul in September. In the last weeks, NASA has released clear satellite photographs of some of the figures taken by the space station, from about 430 miles from earth; NASA has also informed the scientists studying the earthworks that it will make additional photography of the region from space a priority.

Preliminary data from different mounds has suggested a range of dates as early as 6000 BC, from 800 BC, and some may be medieval in period. Mr. Dey’s research suggests that the Mahandzhar culture from 7,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C. is linked to the oldest of the mound constructions. Scientists are astounded by the prospect that ancient societies composed primarily of nomadic peoples could have dug and laid the timbers for ramparts and constructed the giant mounds. (Some forms, as seen from the air, are oddly reminiscent of designs found in medieval Central Asian textiles or used more recently as tamgas, brands associated with clan identity.)

5633cca5c36188ba108b458cImages: DigitalGlobe via NASA

22 Shipwrecks Found in Greek Waters

October 28, 2015.  Archaeologist Peter Campbell announced that a Greek-American expedition has found the largest group of underwater shipwrecks in Greek waters at the tiny Fourni archipelago. Not only is the number of ships unprecedented, but divers have found unusual cargoes of early amphorae (that probably held fish sauce) from three distinct periods from 700 BCE to 200 CE. The Fourni archipelago experienced heavy ship traffic for centuries; it lay at the midpoint of the major east-west and north-south crossings between the Greek mainland and Asia Minor or the Aegean to the Levant. Half of the 22 wrecks date to the Late Roman period – the others span the Archaic Greek period to the 16th century. Although the total number of shipwrecks is high, the 22 wrecks only amount one or two every hundred years. The archaeologists expect to find many more – they have only explored a small percentage of the underwater area surrounding Fourni’s thirteen small islands.

Peter Campbell is co-director of the US-based RPM Nautical Foundation and postgraduate research student within Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute at the University of Southampton. In a Reddit online posting he was asked: “In your wildest dreams what do you hope to find? ”

His answer:

“Good question- there are many things on my list of things I’d like to find, but two loom large. It would be amazing to find a statue underwater, especially because ancient bronze statues almost solely come from shipwreck finds. All the ones on land were melted down for their valuable bronze. I’d really also love to find an Archaic or Classical warship, like those used by Athens during the Persian Wars or the Peloponnesian War. RPM Nautical Foundation (my organization) and the Soprintendenza del Mare already found the first ancient naval battle discovered by archaeologists, the Battle of the Egadi Islands from 241 BC in Sicily. The artifacts from the battle changed everything we know about ancient naval warfare. To now locate its predecessors would be incredible and teach us about the development of war at sea over time.”

Image: Peter Campbell, Diving, University of Southampton.

Exceptionally Rich Mycenaean Tomb Discovered at Pylos

October 27, 2015.  Archaeologists Jack L. Davis and Sharon R. Stocker of the University of Cincinnati have discovered one of the richest early tombs on the Greek mainland at Pylos. The excavation was part of the University of Cincinnati-based international Pylos Regional Archaeological Project, much of which is focused on uncovering the history of the Bronze Age Palace of Nestor, an extensive complex and a site linked to Homeric legend.

Dr. Stoker explained that, “This latest find is not the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent of Greek forces at Troy in Homer’s ‘Iliad.’ Nor is it the grave of his father, Neleus. This find may be even more important because the warrior pre-dates the time of Nestor and Neleus by, perhaps, 200 or 300 years. That means he was likely an important figure at a time when this part of Greece was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete, Europe’s first advanced civilization.”

The grave is of a warrior, possibly a warrior-king, and dates to about 1500 BCE from a period known as Late Helladic II. The grave was pristine, except that the one-ton stone that topped it had fallen in and crushed the wooden coffin buried beneath. The warrior was buried with rich weapons, including a long bronze sword with an ivory and gold hilt and a dagger similarly decorated with gold, vessels of gold, silver, and bronze, carved gold rings and fifty Minoan seal stones. He was given the name of “the griffin warrior” by his excavators, who found an ivory plaque carved with a griffin between his legs.

The warrior’s accouterments are characteristic of Cretan culture, but he – and his grave – are early Mycenaean. The grave lay close to the site of a Mycenaean palace structure, but predates it; scholars investigating the site have suggested that the warrior may have lived at the time when Cretan culture was transferred to and adapted into the newer cultures of the mainland. Although the Mycenaeans were responsible for the destruction and burning of the palace of Knossos on Crete, Dr. Davis wrote that his impression was that the objects were not just plunder belonging to the warrior, but that they also had religious significance to him. He said, “This is the critical period when religious ideas were being transferred from Crete to the mainland.” Scholars believe that the art and culture of Crete contributed much to the development of Mycenaean civilization, which was then succeeded by the classical Greek world.

Image: Solid gold seal ring from the warrior’s tomb, Department of Classics/University of Cincinnati,

Pigs Root Out Ancient Hunter-Gatherers

October 9, 2015.  Pigs set out to browse have accidentally unearthed unexpectedly early evidence of hunter-gatherer groups at the Isle of Islay along the Scottish coastline. Prior to the pigs’ inadvertent discovery (a gamekeeper had released them at a port, Rubha Port an t-Seilich, to reduce the bracken) the earliest evidence for humans at Islay dated to 9,000 years ago. Archaeologists Karen Wicks and Steven Mithen of the University of Readingand were called in to investigate. At the site where the pigs found stone tools and nearby, the archaeologists found remains of animal bones, antlers, spatula-like objects, crystal quartz tools, and what was once a well used fireplace, dating to around 12,000 years ago, before the end of the last Ice Age. The researchers said the style and materials of the tools indicated that they probably belonged to Ahrensburgian and Hamburgian cultures. These groups were primarily reindeer hunters, originating in northern Germany. Britain was joined to Europe during the Late Glacial Period via a landmass called Doggerland, that now lies beneath the North Sea.

Image: Archaeologist Karen Wicks with the pigs that found stone tools belonging to hunter-gatherers. Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks, University of Reading.

Egyptologist Will Seek Hidden Burial of Nefertiti in Tutankhamun’s Tomb

September 24, 2015. Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti may be buried in a secret room adjoining Tutankhamun’s resting place in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor in southern Egypt. Nicholas Reeves, a British archeologist at the University of Arizona, will join Antiquities Minister Mamduh al-Damati and “the best Egyptologists in the ministry” to re-examine Tutankhamun’s tomb at the end of September. Reeves says his high resolution scans of the mural-decorated walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb show linear tracks indicating what might be doorways underneath. If there is a hidden space beyond the walls, it could be a storage space or perhaps, “the undisturbed burial of the tomb’s original owner — Nefertiti”.

Antiquities Ministry sources in Egypt said that if a preliminary investigation indicates that another room lies beyond, further research will be done using sophisticated Japanese radar equipment and additional archaeological exploration to open any areas hidden in construction of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Although DNA testing on Tutankhamun’s body has proved that his father was the monotheist King Akhenaten, the identity of his mother is not known. It has been speculated that she was Akhenaten’s beloved wife Nefertiti. Reeves has stated that since Tutankhamun’s death, in 1324 BC at at age nineteen, took place unexpectedly soon after his reign began, the “Boy King” may have been buried in the reopened tomb of another, perhaps that of Nefertiti, who died ten years earlier.

The Antiquities Ministry announced on September 20 that Tutankhamun’s tomb, a popular tourist site that receives 350 visitors a day, would be closed from October 2015 for restoration. At the time, the restoration work was said to be taking place to give the tomb a new floor. Ministry spokesmen said that Tutankhamun’s mummy, which has been enclosed inside a glass container to preserve it, will be moved to another room during the restoration work.

Tutankhamun’s tomb was extraordinarily rich in grave goods and had never been looted. It was discovered in the excavations by famed Egyptologist Howard Carter of Tutankhamum’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. The most famous relic from the tomb was a 25-pound solid gold funerary mask encrusted with lapis lazuli and semi-precious stones.

Heritage officials at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum made headlines in January 2015, after they attempted to cover up a disastrous accident. Workers replacing an electric bulb in the gold mask’s display case broke off the gold and lapis lazuli beard of Tutankhamun’s mask, and then restorers made botched repairs to the object with epoxy glue. Tutankhamun’s gold mask is arguably the most famous ancient object in the world.

Brooklyn Museum, An early Amarna-era relief depicting Queen Nefertiti, By Keith Schengili-Roberts (Own work (photo)) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3., (], via Wikimedia Commons.