Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah Parcak

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our PastArchaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah Parcak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I requested an advance review copy of this last year but I wasn’t selected. As I only request books I am interested in (novel concept, I know, but some people just like to get lots of books and shotgun their requests…I’m judicious with the reading time I have left!), I filed it away for some day in the future to look for after it was published. So it’s someday. Actually, last month was someday. I finished this at the end of January, but have had a hard time taking the time to write reviews. Call it “reviewer’s block”. Anyway…

Ms. Parcak writes a fun, informative, encouraging (and discouraging…more on that later) book. She talks about different technologies, her and others’ uses of them, even projects a future of archeology. Not in great depth, but deep enough (pardon that…couldn’t resist). And she has a sense of humor; talking about excavating Tebilla, an important port town of Egypt, and the use of 40 year old declassified satellite photos that later photos could not have picked up, she gave a bit of historical background

Herodotus called Artaxerxes III “a great warrior,” and he was certainly tenacious. He attacked Egypt again and again, first as head of the army and heir to the throne in 359 BC, and then as king of Persia, having knocked off 80 of his nearest and dearest at home to maintain control.

The space analyses enabled the archeologists to locate walls of the city and artifacts likely residue from the sacking by Artaxerxes forces. And she pulls in her childhood idol Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

The purpose of archaeology is, to quote Indiana Jones, “… the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

She met Harrison Ford in 2016 after a TED talk in Vancouver:

“Indiana Jones inspired me to go into archeology,” I told him, “and inspired so many in my field. from all of us, thank you.”
“You do realize that I was just a character, right? You know more lines from that movie than I do.” […] Maybe he’s just a very good actor, but I genuinely do not think he understood the impact he’d had on recent generations of our field until that moment.

And when it came time for photos, she produced a brown fedora at which Ford shook his head. I was going to be an archeologist…when I was 10… (yeah, well, I was going to be a paleontologist when I was 8 and an anthropologist when I was 9… I read a lot even then) Of those three broad disciplines/fields, archeology still has an attraction. I like structures.

Some readers seem to have disliked Parcak fleshing out her story with an imagined story, but those readers clearly have no clue how to piece together puzzles from the past. That kind of approach helps, to a degree. Parcak says of the makeup of an excavation team: to “know anything about the function of an object requires so much more than the object in isolation, which is why a dig team pools such varied expertise.” For an fun eye-opener, I recommend David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries. Two thousand years in the future, when an amateur archeologist crossed an “abandoned excavation site he felt the ground give way beneath him and found himself at the bottom of a shaft, which, judging from the DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging from an archaic doorknob, was clearly the entrance to a still-sealed burial chamber.” I won’t spoil Macaulay’s delightful book, but you should be able to imagine the point.

She talks about some of her work with the BBC, which had her analyze different locations for probable Norse sites. When told by the BBC that they had settled on a place on the island of Papa Stour in Scotland, where a couple had found on their farm a loom stone used by Vikings, she said “Hey, that place ranked last for us, eighth out of the eight sites for which we had data.” And asking the director of the show if they had found anything yet, his “You’ll see.” prompted

Something I do not understand about the television world is their yen for a big reveal with the presenter, to catch the “Oh my God!” moment of discovery. It frustrated the crap out of me. The team from the local archaeology unit had worked at Papa Stour for two days, but I was in the dark.

She said upon seeing the 1,200 year old stone structure that her caution had nearly cost them the chance to see something ancient. Digs cost money. And time away from money-making jobs. And they’re not the only things that cost. In a subsection appropriately titled “Knowledge Is Not as free as It Should Be”

Male or female, if you do not come from an upper-middle-class or a wealthy family, then your chances decrease for having an education, books, and internet access, let alone a successful career. If you’re lucky enough to have all these, plus the right connections, only then might you get the training you need to be an archaeologist. But as you begin your graduate work, you hit a literal wall. You’ll hit many of them: paywalls. Access to academic research represents one of the greatest hurdles to budding scientists across the world, when a single article from an online journal can cost $25 to download, which is easily a week’s wages for many government workers outside most Western countries. Journal subscriptions, bundled by corporate publishing superpowers such as Elsevier, can cost thousands of dollars, far beyond what any poorly funded ministry or university can afford

So true. I detest when papers are not available, or cost far more than my research is willing to pay (which is nothing.) Paywalls for information suck.

A laugher for me, she said “After growing up in Maine, I’ve lived in the South now for 12 years, and I have come to like the heat. A lot.” I grew up in Connecticut and have lived on both US coasts, north, south, middle and South Korea, stopping in Texas in 2007. so I’ve lived here 13 years. I will never like nor get used to the heat! I’m a bit older now and the cold isn’t all that attractive, but the heat? Nope.

Now…discouraging… There is so much looting going on in the world (there are also the ideological destructions of Talibans and Daesh and …) The interweb has enabled antiquities piracy and black marketing even more than the already sophisticated underworld had established. And the looting is visible from space. During “Arab Spring”, Ms. Parcak met with meeting with Egypt’s ministers of tourism, foreign relations, antiquities, and foreign affairs, about which she said

Those meetings changed my life. I knew, of course, the role of archaeology and history in global politics, but to experience them firsthand and have a role in shaping them—I had parachuted out of the ivory tower and into a bigger, scarier world.

But she seems suited for it. She says “I love archaeology because it gives me insights into what it means to be human—real, physical evidence I can touch and ponder.”

In closing a chapter titled, “The Challenge”, she says

Archaeologists function as cultural memory hoarders, the khaki-wearing bards singing the songs of cultures long absorbed back into the earth, hoping people pause for a moment and listen. Digging is, for me, a great act of rebellion, against capitalism, the patriarchy, you name it. Because at our core, archaeologists believe that everyone in the past is worth learning about: rich and poor, mighty and weak.
It’s not about skin color or whether someone was an immigrant or grew up on the wrong side of the donkey tracks. It’s about the human story. By the way, archaeologists are terrible gossips; we take fragments of data and spin them into grand tales of love, power, and political intrigue. Right or wrong, maybe we have added another footnote to the history of humanity.
The main challenge we face is that we are at risk of losing so much, when there is clearly so much left to find and protect.

I feel it. I find joy when new pasts are uncovered, when artifacts are saved. I hurt when I see what looters (and poachers) are doing. And I have many things to see in my life…maybe someday I’ll get to the Egypt she loves.

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