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Sarah Parcak
Archaeologist Sarah Parcak wants to create a crowdsourcing project called Global Xplorer, using $1 million in seed money from TED. (Credit: Ryan Lash / TED)

Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak says she’ll use this year’s $1 million TED Prize to create a game that gives players the chance to make real-life discoveries of ancient sites.

The project, known as Global Xplorer, was announced Tuesday night at the TED2016 conference in Vancouver, B.C. It follows through on the TED tradition of giving its prize recipients a million dollars to help one of their dreams come true.

“I wish for us to discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites across the globe,” said Parcak, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “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 was chosen to receive the prize last November, in recognition of her use of satellite imagery to look for archaeological sites that have literally been covered by the sands of time.

In 2011, her team at the Laboratory for Global Observation identified 17 potential pyramids in Egypt, plus more than 1,000 forgotten tombs and 3,000 ancient settlements. More recently, the lab has been documenting ancient sites facing destruction due to looting and civil strife in Egypt and the Middle East.

Global Xplorer is due to launch this summer. It’s modeled after earlier citizen-science projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Planet Hunters. After registration, participants would go through an online tutorial and learn how to look for the signs of ruined structures and looting pits in squares of satellite imagery.

The most promising sites to emerge from the crowdsourcing project would be passed on to professionals for further action.

“We’ll be treating sites like human patient data and not revealing GPS points or showing you where your image is on a map,” Parcak said in a TED blog posting. “The data will only be shared with vetted authorities to create a global alarm system to help protect sites around the world.”

Parcak, whose work has been supported by National Geographic and NASA as well as TED, capitalizes on the fictional Indiana Jones character in her fedora and her Twitter handle (@indyfromspace). But she says her wish is to make every fan an Internet Indy.

“A hundred years ago archaeology was for the rich, 50 years ago it was mainly for men, now it is primarily for academics,” she said. “Our goal is to democratize the process of archaeological discovery and allow anyone to participate.”

You can sign up for updates on Global Xplorer via the project’s website.

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