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Sarah Parcak
University of Alabama archaeologist Sarah Parcak checks satellite imagery of a target site. (National Geographic via YouTube)

Armed with a $1 million TED Prize, archaeologists today launched the GlobalXplorer.org crowdsourcing project to scan satellite imagery for signs of ancient settlements.

“Archaeologists can’t do this on their own,” Parcak told National Geographic, one of the collaborators in the project. “If we don’t go and find these sites, looters will.”

The 38-year-old archaeologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham has already made a good start, by using satellite images to identify buried pyramids in Egypt and a covered-over Viking village in Newfoundland.

Such feats (and her fedora) have earned her a snazzy nickname – “Indiana Jones of the 21st century” – and more importantly, $1 milllion in seed money from the TED Prize program.

That money has gone toward building a platform that takes in high-resolution images from DigitalGlobe’s satellites and sorts them for perusal by registered GlobalXplorer users. Online tutorials train the users to spot and flag potential archaeological sites, based on subtle variations in vegetation. The most promising crowdsourced sites are put on the list for on-the-ground exploration.

The project’s citizen scientists also keep watch for signs of looting, construction or other encroachment. To avoid tipping off potential looters about tempting locations, the “tiles” of satellite images are randomly scrambled and stripped of identifying information.

GlobalXplorer’s target areas are packaged as “expeditions” to archaeological hot spots around the world. The first expedition focuses in on Peru, which has been home to a wide variety of cultures over the past 5,000 years.

Peru’s best-known ancient sites include the stone city of Machu Picchu and the mysterious (and endangered) Nazca Lines, but GlobalXplorer’s users will hunt for yet-to-be-discovered gems.

“Peru is super-special archaeologically, because this is one of the cradles of civilization,” Luis Jaime Castillo, an archaeologist who will serve as Parcak’s co-principal investigator for the Peru project, said in a National Geographic video. “It’s where civilization actually arose from nothing.”

The Sustainable Preservation Initiative is serving as the on-the-ground partner in the effort. SPI’s archaeologists will lead the follow-up surveys of promising sites, as well as educational and entrepreneurial initiatives in the surrounding communities.

“The mission is to preserve the past, but do it by empowering these poor communities so that they can better their lives, alleviate poverty, get opportunities that aren’t available to them,” Larry Coben, the archaeologist who founded SPI, said in a Wall Street Journal video, “so that they can preserve their own past, so it doesn’t require somebody from far away jumping in and putting up a fence.”

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