TED Prize Goes to Archaeologist Who Combats Looting With Satellite Technology


Her laptop brims with satellite images pitted with thousands of black dots, evidence of excavations across Egypt where looters have tunneled in search of mummies, jewelry and other valuables prized by collectors, advertised in auction catalogs and trafficked on eBay, a criminal global black market estimated in the billions of dollars.

“For the first time technology has gotten to the point where we can map looting,” said Sarah H. Parcak, a pioneering “satellite archaeologist,” founding director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Laboratory for Global Observation and an associate professor there.


Satellite eyes in the sky, which have transformed the worldwide search for buried archaeological treasures, are now being used to spy on the archenemies of cultural preservation: armies of looters who are increasingly pockmarking ancient sites with illicit digs and making off with priceless patrimony. de3d8aa4bfe6c55dba2d3a5e60101d6f9ffde7cb_800x600


Nowhere is the tracking effort more advanced than Egypt, where a program led by Dr. Parcak and funded by the National Science Foundation and National Geographic has targeted thievery that, experts say, worsened after the chaos of the 2011 revolution.


And now, in a powerful endorsement of work that may bolster efforts to cripple looting across the Middle East and the rest of the world, TED, the nonprofit forum with the motto “ideas worth spreading,” is scheduled on Monday to announce that Dr. Parcak, 36, has won its most prestigious award — a $1 million prize to develop a project of her choice. Details of the project are to be revealed in a live broadcast of her talk at the TED conference in February in Vancouver, British Columbia.  


Looting and destruction in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have drawn more attention in recent months. And cultural thievery remains a problem in Egypt, where last week the government seized 1,124 stolen artifacts at the port of Damietta. They were en route to Thailand,according to the Al Bawaba news service.