No matter how far we move into the future, there will always be much that we can learn from the past. And often, the achievements of the former lead directly to paradigm shifts in the latter.
That’s where Dr. Sarah Parcak comes in. She is a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham who is at the forefront of the cutting-edge field of space archaeology. Yes, you read that right – space archaeology. Through the use of high-resolution satellite imagery and other tools, Parcak and her colleagues have completely changed the game, finding thousands of heretofore unknown potential dig sites and unlocking whole new worlds of investigative possibilities.
The National Geographic Explorer, TED Prize-winner and all-around brilliant researcher has written a new book – “Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past” (Henry Holt and Co., $30) – aimed at sharing her work, its importance and the history behind it. It’s a chance to gain a closer understanding of the complexities of Parcak’s work, as well as the value that comes from digging into our ancient past. It’s a compellingly-written piece of popular science.
But it also offers something that other science-oriented nonfiction doesn’t – the warm, impassioned and funny voice of Sarah Parcak.
Satellite archaeology is still very much a young field – a field in which Sarah Parcak stands at the forefront – but there’s some history there, a lot of history. Almost since we’ve had the power of flight, we’ve been using that power to take pictures from up on high. And those pictures have long been a tool in the archaeologist’s ongoing quest to find learn more about what was here before.
Parcak walks us through some of that history – as well as her own history with science and archaeology, including formative relationships with figures such as her grandfather Harold Young (a longtime professor of forestry at the University of Maine) and noted archaeologist Indiana Jones – giving us a sense of not only who she is, but from whence she came.
From there, we get in an in-depth look at Parcak’s work, everything from doing boots-on-the-ground, trowel-and-brush field work to using satellite imagery as a way to uncover undiscovered sites that would never have been found by conventional means.
The details of the work, the descriptions of the seemingly-small things that she looks for in her quest to reveal more of our history – it’s all fascinating. She goes into the specifics enough to make the reader feel informed without ever going so far as to lose us in a sea of jargon and data.
But what makes this book really shine is how much of Sarah Parcak we get. Her passion for her work is omnipresent, leaping from every page with an enthusiasm that is undeniably infectious. This is someone who loves what she does with a joyful ferocity; we should all aspire to love our work the way that she does.
Creating a narrative flow with a book like this is tricky, but “Archaeology from Space” is a real success in that regard. Yes, we get loads of information regarding the technology and technical details – all of which is fascinating – but we’re also given a sense of the why. All these ruins and relics of the past – why are they important to the now? That’s the question that Parcak answers.
And those answers don’t always take the form you might expect. For instance, there are a couple of pieces of straight-up fiction folded into the proceedings. These stories – one told from the perspective of the past, the other from the future – serve as wonderful illustrations of the ideas Parcak is presenting. Their presence is a lovely surprise, a welcome nod to the notion that archaeology is in many ways, at its core, about telling stories.
Oh, and it’s actually funny. Not “trying not to be stuffy so here’s the occasional joke” funny. Funny-funny. One of the joys of this book (of which there are money) is the heartfelt humor that Parcak delivers. The tone could be described as mildly self-deprecatory with a little bit of an edge; she’s unafraid to punctuate thoughtful and/or technically dense segments with jokes that are unabashedly goofy. It’s not on every page, but it’s present enough to greatly enhance the overall reading experience.
That’s the thing about “Archaeology from Space” – it’s not just a smart book or a thoughtful book or an informative book. It’s a FUN book. It’s a book that will prove enlightening to all manner of reader, but perhaps most of all, it’s a book that one could see being the catalyst that sparks a young person’s passion, whether it be space archaeology or some other scientific endeavor. The passion within these pages has the potential to inspire.
“Archaeology from Space” is a wonderful piece of work, a book that entertains as it informs. Sarah Parcak offers up a look at her fascinating field, high into orbit and down into the Earth. She shows us how she uses the bleeding-edge of the future to dig deeper into the past, all while telling tales in a writerly voice that is sharp, witty and charming as hell.
Eat your heart out, Indy.