Who is the most famous archaeologist? Indiana Jones, of course, but he is not real, and not just because of his transcendental handsomeness. Same for Jurassic Park's Dr. Alan Grant — also handsome, but technically a paleontologist. In the realm of actual archaeologists, Howard Carter might wear the championship belt, but would he if he hadn't unleashed the Curse of Tutankhamun upon the unsuspecting world? Discovering vanished cultures and civilizations is exciting, but the work that goes into it is painstaking and definitely anti-glamorous. Occasionally it involves a deadly bushwhack through the Amazon rainforests (though maybe not for long), but more often than not, meticulous trowel- and brushwork have unearthed the cities from dust.
But technology changes everything. The modern archaeologist's toolkit includes advanced radar for peeping ancient pyramids through thick jungle canopies, and the profession has now slipped the surly bonds of earth into space, where espionage-grade satellites provide 3,000,000-foot views of human history. Sarah Parcak is along for the ride. The National Geographic Explorer and TED Talker has pored over high-resolution satellite imagery in search of lost settlements, palaces, tombs, and pyramids, and her new book Archaeology from Space reveals her discipline's greatest discoveries and scientific advancements, as well as highlights from her own career.
The book is a science geek's dream come true — in other words, it's perfect for someone like Adam Savage. The erstwhile MythBuster (who we recently interviewed for his book, Every Tool's a Hammer) talked to Parcak about the art and science of archaeology, excavating her writing voice from an academic background, and the lessons to be learned through discovering our past.
Adam Savage: How was the process of writing Archaeology From Space for you? You’re a researcher and a scientist, so were you able to take that much writing in stride or did it kick your butt like it kicked mine?
Sarah Parcak: We can compare butt bruises. Academic writing is super formulaic once you’ve done your research or experiments: statement of problem, literature review, experiments design, methods, results, conclusions…rinse and repeat. The best popular science books educate while gripping you with storytelling and seduce you enough to keep you turning the pages. That is an almost impossible line to walk. Each chapter went through 25-30 drafts, and then I had to move chapters around to get the story arc right. I had to learn how to write again, and the irony is, the hardest part was figuring out how to write in my voice. I’m proudest that the book sounds like me (at least that’s what all my friends who have read it tell me), but the “letting go” of my academic Professor Parcak voice was an unlearning process. I’m still recovering.
Building off that, did the process of putting the book together change how you see your career currently? Did it alter your perspective?
Writing this book changed so many things for me. In learning how to write again- and by the way, that is a lifeline process- I had to let go of being so pedantic. Like, I cared way too much about the administrative changes in the royal court of Dynasty 5 Egypt (ca. 2400 BC), and it definitely did not need an entire paragraph in one chapter, and my editor had to let me know that, perhaps, a sentence would do. It hurt cutting so much of what felt essential, but that taught me a key point in being a public communicator: the public wants to see your enthusiasm, your excitement, your passion. A bit of detail is fine, too much, and they’ve changed channels. So, it’s OK to let go, and list places where people can find out more. It’s a skill to be able to pull people in and make them want to delve deeper, and of course, the readers of the book can be the judges! Writing it made me more committed to public archaeology.
Going back in time, if you could go back and tell ten-year-old you one thing what would it be?
Perseverance matters far more than smarts. Smart people come and go, but those that show up every day, and grind away consistently, those are the people who are ultimately successful. So, keep showing up. (reader, she persisted)
Do you think of the field of archaeology as a creative one?
I have mixed feelings about this. I see such creativity with the graduate students and young faculty I encounter at conferences or in the field. They are applying cross-disciplinary techniques to the analysis of archaeological data, and doing such wonderful things with public outreach, doing live video feeds from the field during excavation seasons, or inventing new tools or adapting programs and 3D scanning/printing objects from museums. I also nap through a lot of conference papers and grind my teeth at old school approaches to sites. Why wouldn’t you be creative, with so many low cost or free tools available? The pushback is because scholars know they are being left behind, and thus entrenchment. I’m here for all the creativity! Keep at it, team archaeology. Our field and the world need it.
I kept the book under wraps for quite a while due to my sheer terror. It is not normal for archaeologists to write popular books, and it felt like a huge risk. Prior to what is called “first pass proofs”- the first full final book draft that you as an author go through while it is being copy edited- I had only shared the book with a handful of non-team people (team being my close group of expert readers) until the advance reader copy was ready. The first person who read it, and I cannot share their name because they swore me to secrecy, was already very well known for storytelling, so I was sweating bullets while they had the book. I kept thinking “what have I done? Who do I think I am? And, they loved it (thank god). The general response is how enjoyable and fun it is, and that it sounds like I am telling stories at a bar over drinks. I thought it would be more informative versus enjoyable- but I think people walk away understanding just how much fun archaeology really is, and how we put the pieces of data together to retell our human story.
On that note of our human story, what has unearthing our distant past taught you about our present, and about humans in general?
My belief, based on all the evidence we have to date going back some 300,000 years, is that our humanity had not changed or evolved. Our technology has certainly evolved, but we are still fundamentally the same people that lived in Africa a few hundred thousand years ago, with the same hopes and fears and dreams and boundless creativity. I find that intensely comforting and grounding. Studying the past has given me a lot of perspective, and I tend to take the long view. I believe we are screwing up the planet, but I don’t think it is too late, and I believe we can innovate our way out of this mess, if we act fast enough (and switch to all electric cars and stop polluting and using plastics etc.). Also, archaeology shows us that corrupt leaders have their statue’s noses and privates smashed off, eventually, so just have a bit of patience. No one is immune to the tides of time.
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