Today were presenting the second installment of my interview with Sarah Parcak, a prominent founding figure in the emerging field of astroarchaeology. Part one ran yesterday (and if you missed it, click right here). Otherwise, you can press play on the embedded audio player or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.
Today, we start off discussing a program Sarah hosted for the BBC. The network provided her with enough satellite imagery and other resources to enable the discovery of 3,100 potential new archaeological sites. This took her and a handful of students a bit over six months. Imagine if they had been using shovels and magnifying glasses instead of satellites!
Sarahs team may just have pinpointed a long-lost (and eagerly sought) pharaonic capital. Satellite data helped them establish the Niles approximate course during the capitals heyday—as well as the locations of settlement-friendly highlands. They then took a 10-centimeter-wide core sample in the most promising area. Four meters down, they found a dense layer of high-end pottery, as well as a semi-precious stone. So this quadrant of the vast and largely uninhabitable flood plain not only once hosted a settlement but one with a large elite population. Though not definitive proof, this is highly suggestive that an ancient capital indeed once stood there.
Sarahs methods are particularly adept at detecting looting activity. Looting pits have a distinctive donut-like signature, which is easy to spot in satellite imagery. Sarah has visual time series covering vast swaths of the Middle East. They indicate that looting persisted at a fairly slow and steady trickle for years. It began to surge around 2005, perhaps triggered by impoverishing local droughts (which themselves may be connected to climate change). Then it went into overdrive during the chaos of 2011s Arab Spring. Sarah talks about the different categories of looters, ranging from pilfering locals, who occasionally loot to ease their grinding poverty, to organized gangs, which show up with bulldozers, machine guns, and large work crews.
If youre enjoying my conversation with Sarah, please consider browsing the full archive of the After On podcast on my site. Alternatively, you can find it in your favorite podcast app simply by searching for the words “After On.” Ive posted deep-dive interviews with dozens of world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists—tackling subjects like cryptocurrency, astrophysics, drones, genomics, synthetic biology, neuroscience, consciousness, privacy & government hacking, and more.
Finally, if youre curious about the latest episode in the main After On podcast feed, this week its an interview with Yale evolutionary psychologist Laurie Santos. Most of Lauries academic work has been on animal cognition. Then this spring, she offered a course on the science and practice of human happiness—almost as an experiment. To her astonishment, it became the most popular class in Yales 300-plus-year history. She has some fascinating things to say about happiness, as well as cognition in dogs and primates. I hope youll tune in for it.
This special edition of the Ars Technicast podcast can be accessed in the following places:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-ars-technicast/id522504024?mt=2 (Might take several hours after publication to appear.)