Wanted: Space Archaeologists, No Experience Necessary

Jasper Lauderdale

Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak, winner of the 2016 TED Prize, has a wish: “for us to discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites across the globe. By building an online citizen science platform and training a 21st century army of global explorers, we’ll find and protect the world’s hidden heritage, which contains clues to humankind’s collective resilience and creativity.” Parcak uses satellite imagery and topographic data captured from hundreds of miles above earth’s surface to locate undiscovered archaeologic sites, applying infrared and false color in a kind of macro approach to augmented reality to identify subtle chemical changes in the landscape that betray ancient human activity, effectively mapping they haystack before rummaging it for needles. But she needs help. In the grand tradition of removing superfluous vowels from the names of mobile apps and other digital media artifacts, her unreleased interactive “platform for humanity” will be called Global Xplorer°, and Parcak intends for it to democratize and gameify archaeologic research by enlisting the support of a networked global community of curious, motivated amateur explorers.

Once the platform is launched, anyone with a computer and access to the web will be able to log on, take an introductory tutorial and start analyzing images preprocessed by Parcak and her team, looking for patterns and shapes, clues that might evidence the presence of manmade structures or signs of looting. Each image, representing between twenty and fifty square meters, will be assigned randomly to its participant analyst and not specifically geolocated so as to protect its referent site. Any finds, corroborated via tagging by dozens of citizen scientists, will then be shared with and vetted by professional archaeologists and, potentially, excavated and broadcast live via apps like Periscope so that Parcak’s armchair (desk chair) archaeologists can witness the fruits of their contributions.

Now if this sounds like uncompensated crowdsourced labor, that may be because it is, admittedly so. Global Xplorer° evokes Aaron Koblin and Takashi Kawashima’s Ten Thousand Cents (2008), in which ten thousand isolated artists each drew a tiny fragment of a one hundred-dollar bill with no knowledge of the overall work to which they were contributing. Granted, each individual was paid one cent for her labor, but the notion of participating in a virtual economy by authoring or analyzing one part of an immense, opaque whole holds true for both cases. However, Parcak’s vision has an altruistic motive: by employing the power of the crowd, that vast and untapped distributed workforce, she and her colleagues can better preserve and protect our shared past/s from looting and intentional destruction at the hands of groups like Daesh.


A processed satellite image of the ancient city of Tanis.



Global Xplorer° is in no way an interactive documentary, but Sandra Gaudenzi’s strategies of participation and discussion of participant collaboration and the new contract between authors and prosumers of interactive artifacts can be helpful when thinking about levels of agency, distribution of power and and what exactly is being produced here by this ongoing and potentially unending collaborative effort. Parcak’s platform will undoubtedly benefit from participatory digital culture, for she is essentially populating a closed database with images and soliciting—in lieu of user-generated content—user analysis of preexisting content. She is facilitating each user’s interactive engagement with the past via her wireframe in order to parse an incommensurable amount of data and hopefully to contribute to a kind of Lévyan collective intelligence. The citizen scientist of Global Xplorer° will navigate the platform spatially and not temporally, charting uncharted real territory and not constructing a narrative or seeking a truth claim, but, like the prosumer of the collaborative interactive documentary, she will be contributing (to) an incomplete piece of a much larger puzzle, mosaic or story—that of human history.

Parcak’s use of the words citizen and army, words that invoke allegiance and responsibility, productively recalls Mandy Rose’s association of citizenship with cocreative documentary practice’s role in the public sphere. Rose cites John Hartley’s notion of DIWO (do-it-with-others) citizenship, which is “driven by voluntarist choices and affiliations but at the same time it has an activist and communitarian ethic where ‘knowledge shared is knowledge gained’ … highlighting the ethical dimension of participation—the social and political purpose reflected in time freely given to dialogue and deliberation, as a contribution toward understanding and change” (209). Global Xplorer° exemplifies this sociopolitical aim via its practical applications and resultant offline implications (preservation, protection and shared/gained knowledge of the past). Parcak has also spoken of the platform as “a super high-tech version of Google Earth,” which for Steve Anderson “is indicative of the movement toward increasingly hybrid online representations of physical spaces … The long-term vision of these projects seeks a thorough integration of the physical world with the data world—or, more precisely, the linkage of photographic representations of the physical world with data about the physical world. As tools for mapping photographs onto 3-D models … seek to seamlessly merge these two representational paradigms, the power of combining the efforts of distributed communities of users with centralized computational systems becomes apparent” (138–9). Such conflation of geospatial and historiographic dimensions will, for Anderson, irrevocably alter our relation to history, and will, for Parcak, allow us to, by virtue of these powerful distributed communal efforts, illume it.

Global Xplorer

Parcak’s placeholder for the upcoming platform.

As Parcak puts it, “If we want to learn about our past, we need to invert the pyramids. A hundred years ago archaeology was for the rich, 50 years ago it was for men, and now it’s mainly for academics. But archaeology can be for everyone … It is on us to preserve our past. I believe Global Xplorer° will not just play a major role in changing how archaeology works—but in rewriting our collective history.” How’s that for an incentive to participate?

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Works cited

Anderson, Steve F. Technologies of History: Visual Media and the Eccentricity of the Past. Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2011.

Gaudenzi, Sandra. “Strategies of Participation: The Who, What and When of Collaborative Documentaries.” In New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses, edited by Kate Nash, Craig Hight and Catherine Summerhayes, 129–48. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Rose, Mandy. “Making Publics: Documentary as Do-It-With-Others Citizenship.” In DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media, edited by Matt Ratto and Megan Boler, 201–12. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014.