Ask Bangor native Sarah Parcak what is the coolest thing she’s ever found during her career as an archaeologist and Egyptologist, and she’ll say it’s the thing she hasn’t found yet.
Over the course of a nearly 20-year career, Parcak has dug at sites throughout Egypt, used the most cutting-edge technology out there to revolutionize the way archaeology is done, received a TED Prize and been named a National Geographic fellow. Her 2019 book, “Archaeology From Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past,” details how she uses satellite imagery and remote sensing to detect never-before-seen archaeological sites around the world.
Before she was Dr. Parcak, however, she was a kid from Bangor, Maine, learning about science and technology from her grandfather and becoming fascinated by Ancient Egypt from a very early age. As part of the Bangor Daily News’ ongoing series of interviews with interesting people from Maine, reporter Emily Burnham interviewed Parcak on Tuesday via Zoom. Here are some highlights from their chat.
First off, you mention in your book, “Archaeology From Space,” that one of your earliest influences as a scientist was your grandfather. Can you tell us more about him?
My grandfather, for many decades from the late 1940s through the 1970s, was a forestry professor at the University of Maine, and my grandmother was president of the faculty senate. So I, in essence, grew up at UMaine. My brother and I also spent many hours walking through the woods with him, and he gave me such a great appreciation for the natural world, and being outside exploring. He was one of the pioneers in developing tools for assessing and analyzing landscapes, looking at trees, using aerial photographs. He’s the reason I took my first remote sensing class as an undergraduate. I credit my career choice to him.
Where did your fascination with Ancient Egypt come from?
Most Egyptologists will tell you that the interest kind of came out of nowhere. I don’t remember the moment when I thought, “Wow, Egypt looks amazing.” I just remember being fascinated. Maybe it was National Geographic. And, we were lucky, since we grew up very close to the Bangor Public Library. I tell people everywhere I travel it’s one of the great public libraries of the United States. So, there’s no rhyme or reason for it being Egypt, but I do remember my mom and dad were going to take me to the King Tut exhibit in New York in the late 80s, and at the last minute we couldn’t go. I told my parents that if we could have gone, maybe I’d ended up being a banker.
What’s your favorite sort of work to do? What are some of your favorite things you’ve discovered so far?
I wear a lot of hats, but I’m really a settlement archaeologist or landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human and environmental interactions, and how and why cities and the people in them adapted or evolved. I’m constantly pulling in current events and talking about what the past has to do with today. We’ve been through a lot of pandemics before, and the parallels are identical. We’ve been through a lot of political upheavals before, and the parallels are identical. I’m constantly referencing what’s happening today to what these sites where I work have to teach us. For me, the most exciting things I’ve been able to find in Egypt always give me kind of a new lens through which to look at the world today.
Egypt is, of course, your main focus, but you’ve worked in lots of places all over the world. Where else have you visited and done work?
I’ve worked, I think, at last count it was 14 countries over five continents, in a combination of both remote sensing work and work on the ground. I prefer to get out on the ground. I’ve been to Newfoundland, Finland, Iceland, Scotland, India. A little bit of work in China, Peru. I’ve worked in Tunisia, Jordan, Italy, Romania, Central Asia. So yeah, I’ve been everywhere. But every place has its own traditions and approaches when it comes to archaeology, and so being able to go to other places and look at the new advanced sciences and dating techniques and soil collection techniques that they’re using always helps me when I go back to Egypt. That’s been the biggest gift, because it’s helped me to rethink how I approach excavation in Egypt.