Space archaeologists need your help to protect ancient treasures | Science News for Students

Space archaeologists need your help to protect ancient treasures

New website enlists the public to pore over satellite images for signs of possible looting
Mar 1, 2017 — 7:10 am EST
Machu Piccu

Peru’s most famous ancient site is Machu Picchu, which was founded by the Incas in the 15th century. Archaeologists are reaching out to the public to find other sites — and protect them from looting.


Thieves are stealing ancient artifacts in Peru and the country needs your help to stop them. You can join the adventure without even leaving home. Just put on your best Indiana Jones hat and log on to GlobalXplorer°

This new website trains people to hunt for ancient ruins in satellite images. Maybe they will find a temple hidden in the jungle. Or pits dug by robbers trying to plunder that temple.

“This is just as much about protecting sites as it is about finding new sites,” says Sarah Parcak. She works at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. As an archaeologist, she studies human history and prehistory. Her work may involve using artifacts and other physical remains to learn about the past. Last year she won a $1 million prize.  It's given each year by the TED organization to support some big idea. Parcak used her money to create GlobalXplorer°. It turns regular people into “space archaeologists.”

Satellites look down on Earth from hundreds of kilometers (miles) above. They cannot see below the ground. But they can reveal clues on the surface that hint at what lies beneath. Space archaeologists use satellite images to scout for sites worth exploring.

Parcak and her team have already found thousands of interesting locations using space imagery. They discovered buried pyramids in Egypt and settlements the Vikings may have built in North America. But the team also has found signs of trouble. Last year, Parcak warned the world about thousands of holes dug in Egypt by looters. Looting is the stealing of valuable objects, and it often occurs during war or other times of social upheaval. Looting has become a big problem in Egypt, especially when people there are having financial problems.

Looting also has become a problem in Peru. There, the government wants to do more to fight this crime. That nation is home to many well-preserved archeological sites. One the most famous is the citadel Machu Picchu. The Incas built it more than 600 years ago.

Looking for allies to help her stop this destruction, Parcak turned to the public. Most people are very good at recognizing objects in pictures. And that can be very useful for science. One project called Galaxy Zoo asked the public to help astronomers find galaxies by poring over images of space taken by a telescope. Some 150,000 people signed up to do this in just the first year. They classified 50 million galaxies, most of which no one had ever seen before. They even discovered some weird and unexpected objects that surprised scientists.

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satellite Peru
Can you spot the unusual shape in this satellite image of Peru? Here’s a hint: look for circles. These are the kinds of features that space archaeologists search for to find interesting sites to explore.
©DigitalGlobe 2017

How good human beings will be at finding archaeological sites in Peru, or elsewhere, is not known. “Satellite pictures are not simple photos,” notes Nicola Masini. An archaeologist, he works for Italy’s National Research Council in Rome. With computers, he analyzes satellite images to explore Peru. Computers can notice things the human eye cannot. For instance, these digital spies can see small differences in how light is reflected off of different things on the ground. And that might signal promising sites to excavate.

So far, more than 29,000 people have signed up  with GlobalXplorer°.  Volunteers will focus on catching looters in its first campaign, which lasts until March 15 of this year. (After that, new campaigns will ask volunteers to check out other things.)

For the Peru search, the website divides the nation's surface into a grid of 120 million squares. Each square is about the size of two football fields placed side by side. Visitors to the site look at satellite images of the squares. They click a button if they see something suspicious, such as a dark hole or a bulldozer. Everyone is scored based on what they flag. Those who notice something that is then confirmed by other people get a higher score.

If enough people mark a square, Parcak and her team will flag it. They can then use that information to plan trips to investigate those sites.

No one except for Parcak and her team know the exact location of each square, though. They do not want thieves to use these images to find the next spot for a heist. That, after all, would defeat the whole purpose of the project.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

archaeology    (also archeology) The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. Those remains can range from housing materials and cooking vessels to clothing and footprints. People who work in this field are known as archaeologists.

artifact     An object made by people.

citadel      A fortress or other stronghold, often on a hill, used by people of a city to resist attack.

digital     (in computer science and engineering)  An adjective indicating that something has been developed numerically on a computer or on some other electronic device, based on a binary system (where all numbers are displayed using a series of only zeros and ones).

football field     The field on which athletes play American football. Owing to its size and familiarity, many people use this field as a measure of how big something is. A regulation field (including its end zones) runs 360 feet (almost 110 meters) long and 160 feet (almost 49 meters) wide.

galaxy    A massive group of stars bound together by gravity. Galaxies, which each typically include between 10 million and 100 trillion stars, also include clouds of gas, dust and the remnants of exploded stars.

grid     (in mathematics or mapping) A network of lines that cross each other at regular intervals, forming boxes or rectangles, or an orderly field of dots that mark where each pair of lines intersect, or cross one another.

Incas  A group of people who formed a vast empire in the Andes mountains of South America in the 15th century. The Incas were ruled by an emperor and expanded their territories by military conquests.

Machu Picchu     A citadel built by the Incas. It sits some 2,400 meters above sea level. It was built in the 15th century and served as a retreat for the Incan emperor until the 16th century when the Incas were conquered Spaniards.

pyramid     A monumental structure with a square or triangular base and sloping sides that meet in a point at the top. The best known are those made from stone as royal tombs in ancient Egypt.

satellite     A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

telescope    Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.

Vikings     Seafaring explorers who came from Scandinavia. They traveled as traders and raiders from the late 700s to roughly 1100 A.D. Although Vikings have a reputation for warring, history suggests most started as farmers that took summer trips to trade and expand their territories.

Further Reading

Watch Sarah Parcak’s 2012 TED Talk about space archaeology: