Photograph by Pep Roig, Alamy
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One of three dozen World Heritage sites in India, Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park in Gujarat was long hidden beneath dense forest until archaeologists uncovered the ruins.

Photograph by Pep Roig, Alamy

Solving India’s ancient mysteries—with the help of citizen scientists

A pioneering archaeologist is about to launch her most ambitious project yet: using the public to search satellite images for clues to India’s past.

Archaeology isn’t the dusty science it was a generation ago. New technologies that once seemed straight out of sci-fi are now peering inside mummy bundles, locating buried traces of buildings, and revealing the ruins of cities hidden by forest canopies.

For more than a decade, National Geographic Explorer Sarah Parcak has been on the front line of this revolution, using satellite images to find and explore ancient sites around the globe. Now she’s about to take on a new challenge as she focuses her GlobalXplorer citizen-science project on the subcontinent of India.

Space Archaeology 101: The Next Frontier of Exploration Watch how archaeologists are using satellite images to identify and survey buried sites.

In 2016, Parcak, a professor at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, won the first million-dollar TED prize for a big idea. She proposed creating an online platform, called Global Xplorer, to crowdsource the initial assessment of satellite images for signs of cultures from long ago. The platform launched on January 1, 2017, allowing anyone in the world with a computer and internet access to help discover and protect remnants of Peru’s rich cultural heritage.

The results have been staggering. The project has logged more than 80,000 participants from a hundred countries. Volunteers have viewed more than 15 million images, covering some 100,000 square miles, and identified 19,000 sites that were not in Peru’s database of archaeological ruins. The finds include 50 new Nazca Lines, the mysterious figures that indigenous people carved into Peru’s coastal desert many centuries ago. (Read why Parcak believes archaeologists have vastly underestimated the size and scale of past human settlements.)

The platform for Peru is still up and running but will be decommissioned when the India project launches—by the end of this year, Parcak hopes. If all goes well, the work in India could last for years as the project surveys the country’s 29 states and several territories.

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Satellite images of Dashur, Egypt, document a dramatic increase in looting pits caused by the global economic crisis and the Arab Spring uprising.

“India has had relatively little archaeological remote-sensing work done compared to other places, which is what fueled my initial interest,” Parcak says. Also, the full extent of India's archaeological work—which began officially when British army engineer Alexander Cunningham founded the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861—has never been mapped comprehensively. Parcak expects her project to remedy that.

“The good news for us is that India has dozens upon dozens of diverse cultures from different periods of time, often layered over one another,” Parcak says. “Wherever we end up going, the crowd’s going to be able to see extraordinary things.” (See how satellite images helped reveal Viking settlements in Canada.)

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Egyptologist Sarah Parcak

Three dozen of India’s cultural heritage properties are already listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Parcak thinks there could be tens of thousands of as yet unknown sites mapped as part of this project—temples, tombs, forts, roads, and even entire cities. The discoveries promise to be spectacular across a subcontinent that has seen a parade of cultures come and go.

India’s historical wealth includes 9,000-year-old Neolithic sites, great cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro that belonged to the Indus Valley Civilization (about 3300 B.C. to 1300 B.C.), evidence of Roman-period trading along the southern coast, and a string of northern sites associated with the famed Silk Road, the network of trade routes that for centuries carried luxury goods between the East and the West.

Parcak’s team is completely rebuilding GlobalXplorer to make it smarter, faster, and more satisfying to use. The new platform will offer an improved tutorial to help volunteers get up to speed quickly, and volunteers will be able to share discoveries and comments with the rest of the Global Xplorer community.

Parcak would be thrilled if this new phase of Global Xplorer attracts millions of volunteers, with tens or even hundreds of thousands from India itself. “That would be a huge win for us,” she says. (Here's how to become a space archaeologist.)

In the future, Parcak hopes other countries will contact to her to launch their own crowd-sourced satellite surveys, all of which could run simultaneously on the new, expanded Global Xplorer platform. The possibilities are immense. Parcak estimates that there are at least 12 million potential archaeological sites yet to be discovered—perhaps as many as 50 million. That means the sky’s the limit for her archaeology-from-space project now that it has gotten off the ground successfully.

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Archaeology from Space book cover.
In her new book, Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes our Past, Sarah Parcak chronicles the history of her field. She includes current breakthroughs that are happening so fast it’s hard to keep up, even for her, and she spins a tale about what she thinks archaeology will look like centuries from now. She also weaves in stories from her own career, beginning with the inspiration she found in watching endless reruns of Indiana Jones movies as a child. (It’s no accident that her Twitter handle is @indyfromspace.) Her work has taken her from Egypt to Iceland, Cambodia to Canada, and to a lunch with actor Harrison Ford, who plays her cinematic hero. (Yes, she brought a fedora, the kind of hat that Indy wore.)