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Where past meets future: A conversation with Dr. Sarah Parcak

July 9, 2019
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Where past meets future: A conversation with Dr. Sarah Parcak (photo courtesy of National Geographic/Rob Clark)

Talking science, storytelling and her new book “Archaeology from Space”

Dr. Sarah Parcak’s Twitter handle says it all - @indyfromspace. Yeah, that’s right – she’s a space archaeologist.

What’s that, you ask? Well, you’re about to get the chance to find out, thanks to the Bangor native’s new book “Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.” Her work involves the use of satellite imagery to determine the presence (or absence) of archaeological sites that otherwise could only be discovered via traditional boots-on-the-ground methods.

Forget the fedora – we’re finding the past by way of the future!

Parcak’s fame in scientific circles has been steadily growing over the past decade or so. Things really blew up for her when she was awarded the million-dollar TED Prize in 2015. She appeared on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert,” bringing awareness of her work to a whole new level. She founded the website GlobalXPlorer, which allows users to do their own metaphorical digging, using satellite images to go on their own archaeological scavenger hunts from on high.

Let me repeat – she is a space archaeologist. It sounds like the sort of job that a precocious six-year-old would invent, something along the lines of “cowboy astronaut” or “baseball player president.” But make no mistake – she is real.


Here’s the thing – Dr. Sarah Parcak is tremendously accomplished. Not only is she a tenured professor with all that entails – teaching load, research, etc. – but she’s also still engaged in field work of both the space and non-space varieties. She has a family – she’s married to noted Egyptologist Greg Mumford; they have a child together. So why write a book?

“That’s a wonderful question and something I consistently ask myself even now that it’s done,” Parcak said in a phone interview last month. “I have gained such extraordinary respect for people who write full time as a career, whether they're doing it as a journalist or they write books or both. I don't know how they do it.”

Parcak went on to share some of her thoughts with regards to the process.

“I don't really remember much from January to June of last year,” she said with a chuckle. “I remember sitting in front of a computer and I remember moments when I was writing. But also there are times … I got a hardcover copy of the book two weeks ago. I pick up the book and look at it and I'm like ‘I must have downloaded this from’ And obviously I didn't, because for every chapter there's 25 to 30 drafts; I had folders upon folders upon folders of drafts and drafts and drafts. In a way, it’s kind of like giving birth: you could remember it if you think hard enough about it, but you don't necessarily want to.

“I don't know how I did it – I was teaching a full course load and I was writing a very complex search for my department at the time. But somehow, I did it. So yeah - I still don't understand how people do this full-time.”

It’s worth noting that it’s not just about writing. Anyone who has gone through a PhD program and developed the sort of academic career that Parcak has is no stranger to putting words to page. But writing for academia and writing for the general public are two very different things – something Parcak learned firsthand during this process.

“I had to learn a new way to write,” she said. “In a way that I'd never written before. Of course, academic writing is very different than writing a popular science book.”

Popular is a good word to use here; the surge in interest in Parcak’s work in the general culture has been remarkable to witness. That interest is a large part of why this book exists in the first place. There are a few reasons for that, according to Parcak.

“I think when you look at all that's surrounding this field, when you look at the global headlines generated when the first big articles came out about all the discoveries that were made using LIDAR and lasers in Central America. Global headlines for a week straight in every possible news outlet - National Geographic, New York Times, The Guardian. We're seeing more and more of these headlines from these discoveries. I think people are primed to be receptive.

“Also, it’s space; hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people are watching live landings of rovers on Mars or of rocket ships free landing, things like Falcon Heavy with SpaceX and Elon Musk. People love space and it's become more accessible to them. I think the combination of the past and the future and the fact that people can engage with it really resonates.”

So what about the parts of writing the book that have little to do with the actual writing of the book itself? There are a lot of moving parts in publishing – something Parcak quickly learned.

“I got connected to my agent, an absolutely wonderful, wonderful human,” she said. “And I met with him and said ‘Hey, I want to write this book about the space archeology that I'm doing using satellite imagery.’ It took me 18 months to write the proposal because I was launching GlobalXPlorer and dealing with a lot of other things, so it just took a long time to for the idea to come into fruition.”

And even then, putting a book together isn’t the front-to-back, top-to-bottom process you might expect. Things move in unexpected directions and happen at unexpected times.

“When I started writing the book, the arc was not clear at all; that really only came together at the very end,” she said. “I gather this happens a lot during the book writing process – you've written all the chapters, they’re just not in the right order. There's a lot of rearranging that happens, and at first, I was like ‘What do you mean rearranging chapters?’ because it's your baby and you're used to it looking a certain way, but then they fix it and it reads so much better, it pulls people along.

So yes – it is a complex process and I have endless respect for people that do this full time. And of course, people ask me ‘What are you going to write next?’ and I just look at them and I think I give this look of desperation and they give me a ‘Never mind, just forget that I asked.’

“Though I will say that I may be getting the itch again, so we’ll see what comes next.”

It’s worth noting that whatever struggles Parcak may have had in the initial move away from academic writing do not show up in the pages of “Archaeology from Space.” Her authorial voice is both distinctive and entertaining in the manner of the very best popular nonfiction. It was a specific choice that she made in the course of writing – one that ultimately rang true to those who know her best.

“Ironically, the hardest part of writing that I learned and didn't know was that you’re thinking in a voice and you're speaking in a voice, but when you first start writing for a popular audience, you write in such a controlled way, almost like you're hiding yourself,” she said. “And certainly, when you're coming from a position of academia, we're taught to write in a very particular way. And why would you ever share or reveal who you are or how you think in a book?

“But to write a good science engagement or sci-comm book, you have to be the guide. You have to be the person that someone wants to sit down with at a bar or by a fire and you’re having a drink and they want to listen to you tell stories. That's what the best science books or popular science books do – they invite you in.

“I basically had to unlearn everything I had learned about writing from the previous 20 or so years of my life and learn how to allow my voice to come through. For my friends or colleagues that know me well that have read it, the general comment is ‘It sounds like you,’ which makes me very proud because I worked very hard to do that.”

A major part of that voice is the sense of humor that is prominent throughout. When I asked her about the importance of that sense of levity and how it lifted the overall reading experience, Parcak spoke a little bit about including that aspect of her character in the book … and how much was potentially TOO much.

“I should say that there were there were a LOT more jokes early on,” she said. “And my main editor Michael, at one point, we spoke on the phone and he said ‘Look, in person, I know you're goofy, I know you like to tell jokes, but you are a scientist writing a popular science book sprinkled with humor. You are not a comedian writing a funny book sprinkled with science. There's a big difference between the two.’ So I thought back on some of the jokes; looking back, there are some real – like, just the WORST dad jokes.

“I think there's just enough and not TOO much. I tried to pace things out. I really tried to pull myself back from the book and think after a page of this, something really intense, we need a step back. We need a joke or a lighter point.

“The thing is, you're constantly seducing your reader to keep turning the page, and if at any point the reader becomes frustrated or closes the book, that’s it, you're done. So – what’s going to keep that reader? Who's reading the book? For whom am I writing this? You want to keep as diverse range of potential readers engaged as possible. And so with a little chuckle or a little laugh, you're building up this trust with your audience. It’s showing who you are and in showing who you are, hopefully they want more of that and they keep reading.

“It was a really intense process learning how to do that. I think I learned learning how to do that in addition to the arc of the book, the pacing and getting the rhythm down right was it was a big challenge for me – something that I consistently tried improve upon throughout the writing process.”

Another unexpected, but welcome element of the book were the occasional moments where Parcak chose to bring fiction into the mix, telling the story of one long-ago family in one stretch and visiting a far-flung future in another. Both tales were not necessarily what one would anticipate seeing in a book like this, but they added yet another layer of depth.

“In a lot of ways, archaeologists in the business of storytelling,” she said. “We’re retelling what things were like hundreds or thousands of years ago. I love science fiction; I love Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and Octavia Butler and so many other great writers. They profoundly affected me when I was growing up, how I think about the past and the present and the future.

“The fiction grew out of this desire to communicate the story of the Old Kingdom; as you could tell from the chapter, it was really complicated - political economic and environmental issues going on – and it is a LOT to digest. The idea of bringing to life this woman and her family and taking the readers to a place where they could imagine what it would've been like … it makes all the information a lot easier to digest. It helps them get why things are the way they are, and they understand the archeological data. There's a whole story behind it. So that's really what I wanted to do was just to bring to life the story behind what may have caused all this evidence to appear in the archaeological record. Obviously, she’s fictional, but she and her story of her life or based on a lifetime of being an Egyptologist, of reading thousands upon thousands of articles about the Old Kingdom and reading books and visiting sites and all that informs that life, so while it’s fictional, I think it is also realistic.

“With the fiction, I wanted to hopefully give people the chance to be a bit more empathetic about people that were suffering from the same issues that they're suffering from today and to see that suffering through their eyes and to see what's possible; when you move to a new place, you sometimes encounter compassion and see what that can do.”

One never knows how successful a book might be before going into the world. It’s worth noting, however, that there’s more than one definition of successful.

“I can't predict how the book will do; I hope people love it. I wrote it to be as accessible as possible. But I think there's definitely a public hunger for stories about faith in technology, and also I think the world right now given everything we're dealing with – between climate crisis and migration and the rise of nationalism and hate and all the awful things that we contend with on a daily basis I think the world needs hope. And not even like a Pollyannaish, everything's going be okay kind of sense. I think we have to be pragmatic and realistic, but I think archaeology has so much to teach us about different ways we can imagine the future because of all the ways that we've existed in the past. And I think we need to do a much better job of honoring the diversity of all these cultures and all that they’ve brought us and taught us and all the ways that we've been influenced and impacted by them. And the only way you can do that is by studying archaeology.

“So you if you are someone who perhaps did not think in a very positive way about people who live in the Middle East or Central America and all of a sudden you're learning about these amazing Egyptians who built the pyramid and people in Mesopotamia who wrote these great epics and people in Central America who altered their landscapes and built these gorgeous structures and you're like ‘Wow, people in these places were doing amazing things.’ Well guess what – they still are.’ It shows the possibility and the potential that all the cultures today have to give us and contributing. So I hope it's not just about the science but it's about the humanity of archaeology and it can teach us.”

“One thing I really hope the book does for all the kids that are out there … you know growing up in Bangor during the ‘80s, it’s not like archaeology was super accessible. It's not like I had ready access to big museums. But I hope it inspires a lot of kids to not just go into archeology, but the idea that you can imagine and dream something as a child and follow your passion and pursue the idea that there are these fields that are going to exist that don’t exist right now. I hope kids and adults alike see that with all of these technological developments, they can invent and create the jobs that they’ll do someday.”

Those exponential changes in technology have drastically altered the world that we live in over the past couple of decades. That’s just as true in Parcak’s world as in any other – and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. The landscape that her students will navigate in the future promises to change even more rapidly.

“The way technology is developing, the way things are shrinking, there’s so much you can do on your phone or iPad that you used to only be able to do in the field with a pen and paper,” she said. “With how fast things are changing, it’s so hard to predict. Ten years ago when social media, in particular Twitter, was just kicking off, who could've predicted the impact and the role that it would play in geopolitics. In the span of humanity that’s less than the blink of an eye.

“We just don't know with all these technological developments, with innovation, how quickly things will change, and I think we have to teach our students how to be more nimble, how to adapt, how to onboard technology more quickly. Those aren’t skill sets that are to a large extent being taught in graduate school. Obviously, some programs teach that, but most don't. So how do you prepare archeology students for a radically different future? I can't answer that question. I mean it's something to be debated and discussed; I mean, I process satellite imagery for my research and I can't keep up with how much data there is and how much more there is available and all these new techniques. I can barely publish the research that I do; it’s this constant feeling of being behind. And if I'm behind and I'm trying to push the technology ahead … I guess I just want to tell the students that it's okay. The technology is just going to keep developing, so just do the best job you can. Plus, there are those colleagues doing extraordinary cutting-edge work and I try to celebrate them as much as possible in the book.”

An unexpected side effect of the cultural awareness of Parcak’s work is that she has become the face of her field, an inspiration to young people seeking to follow a similar path. Of course, her inspiration was a little bit different – one you can probable deduce from her Twitter handle.

“It’s worth noting that when I was first exposed to Indiana Jones, I was probably six years old,” she said with a laugh. “I certainly didn’t realize that he was kind of problematic. And again, I can only contextualize it in my frame of reference, what that character did for me at that time. And obviously I try to deconstruct those narratives now, but to be honest, I'm basically a tired mom. Our son is going into the first grade. I had a very busy schedule with my students, with my research, with the not-for-profit that I founded and I'm constantly moving; whether it's writing articles, writing grants, going to meetings, I have a very busy life that's very grounded and very real. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about who I am to a larger extent. Growing up in Maine, growing up in Bangor, you ‘ain’t allowed to put on these airs.’”

(Editor’s note: For someone who hasn’t lived here for a long time, Sarah Parcak can still drop a legit Maine accent. Solid work.)

“It’s that classic central Maine working class attitude and I love that. That's how I grew up. It’s snowing outside, ergo you will go shovel for two hours. Yes, there will be hot cocoa and yes, there will be marshmallows on top, but you know you’ll be held to account. Even now that I'm a grown woman, when I go home, I know I’m going to shovel the driveway, because I clearly still need some help with my character building which I fully acknowledge.

“On the other hand, I do recognize my position and my privilege. And I do think a lot about the role that I have in the larger field of popularizing the field and inspiring the next generation. So I try as often as I can – like Michelle Obama said ‘As we rise, we bring others with us’ – I tried to use my book to celebrate the work of other people. I try to talk about the work that other people are doing as much as I can. I'm also very outspoken on Twitter and social media because I think our country is in a mess and has been a mess; we're a country that's built on deeply racist and colonialist and white nationalist roots. And I try to speak out for justice and equality much as I'm able.

“I think it's good for younger people see that. It’s good for kids to see someone outspoken and speaking truth to power and trying to use their position to advocate for good. It is a little overwhelming to think that kids see me and think that they could be me and I tell kids don't be me, be you. I'm the only one on this planet and you're the only you on this planet and the world is better for you being you. But the idea that hopefully they see - especially girls - they see a woman on stage being very outspoken and strong and powerful and trying to advocate for good. I hope I hope that inspires them no matter what they do, that they too can be that voice. We need we need a lot more of it today.

“Look, I would love someday to see a new Indiana Jones movie with a woman in the Indy role, someone who is kind of like a Wonder Woman, but for archaeology. So yeah - I don't think about it every day, but sometimes I do. I get who I am, I get what I do that and the role that I play in my field. So I try to just do the best that I can.”

Her best is pretty darned good. And the young people out there shooting for the stars, looking to her as a role model, well … they’d be hard pressed to find a better one.

Last modified on Thursday, 11 July 2019 16:28

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