Inverse spoke to archaeologist Sarah Parcak the day after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Parcak, like many Americans, was still in the process of sorting through feelings of grief. However, unlike many, Parcak studies the ruins of past civilizations. She can see current predicaments from a bird's-eye view.
“I tend to think cyclically, because of archaeology, about the nature of these things – about how empires rise and fall,” she tells Inverse.
“What we find in archaeology is broken, and we have to make it whole again. We are breaking, as a society, but also we've been broken for 400 years. We were never whole."
Her bird's-eye view is literal. Parcak is the world's foremost space archaeologist, known as a "modern-day Indiana Jones." She uses satellites to find ancient cities, tombs, and archaeological sites. Her discoveries include 17 pyramids, 3,100 potential settlements, and 1,000 tombs in Egypt. She's found fingerprints of the Viking world and the former Roman Empire.
Parcak is also a founder of and a professor at the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama Birmingham, the author of Archaeology from Space, a 2013 Senior Ted Fellow, and the recipient of the 2016 Ted Prize. That entails a $1 million dollar grant she used to construct a citizen science platform called GlobalXplorer.org, where anyone can search for archaeological sites using satellite images.
Inverse spoke to Parcak about the forces that shaped her career path, the influence of a few crucial mentors, and how she solves problems on the ground.
What was the first early adulthood job that set you on the track towards remote sensing and satellite archaeology?
My parents were in the restaurant business. From childhood until when I was in high school, I helped them seat people in the restaurant. It's going to sound like they violated labor laws, but they didn't.
I realized very quickly that I could get tips because people thought it was really adorable. I think that really helped me to develop my people person skills. You need to be really confident around people of all ages and backgrounds because you never know who you're going to meet in a restaurant. I think that really helped to prepare me for working with other human beings, and it made me really confident in my own skin.
That probably started me off on a career where I wanted to work with other human beings.
I fell into [remote sensing and archaeology] when I was an undergraduate. I took a course in remote sensing my senior year at Yale, and that's really what made me do what I do.
I took the course because of my grandfather. He was a forestry professor at the University of Maine, and he was one of the pioneers in using aerial photography and forestry. I thought, 'Well, Grampy has used this; I bet loads of folks have used this in archaeology, especially Egyptology.'
But the more I learned, the more I realized very, very few people had.
It seems like you have these people skills and these hard science skills. How do those two things come together when you’re on the job?
I tell my students that the most important thing about archaeology is its relationships. The fieldwork site is so reliant on permits and permissions from government officials and other countries. Of course, you're working on diverse teams with people from all around the world.
"You’re always going to remember how someone made you feel."
The best run digs are ones run by directors and project managers who keep their egos out of it. I've heard excavations compared to military operations before, and that's how I sort of saw them initially because that's what they were presented to me. But I realized that's incredibly patriarchal and not okay.
The person who is sifting the sand and the person doing the physical labor of digging is just as important as the person looking at the pottery or doing the drawing and conservation work.
Having those interpersonal skills, recognizing the value of other humans, and being a decent, empathetic human is so crucial. If your team is happy, feels respected, and feels like everything they're doing has a purpose, you're going to get the best work possible.
If you were to put together a montage of your first year on the job, what song would be playing in the background?
It's just gorgeous, ethereal, magical, evocative music. I think it captures the enormity and the immensity of the responsibility that I feel when I'm in the field. I’m making sure that everyone is safe, making sure that there's top work being done, and making sure I'm following all the rules and regulations.
It's the best music that I think expresses outwardly what I'm feeling inside.
What was a moment in your early career that forced to you innovate?
I remember I was going on this survey project 17 years ago in Middle Egypt as part of a thesis and there was just a rush that morning. Every morning I went out to survey sites I had mapped with satellite imagery.
I can’t remember why or how, but [once] somehow my tape measure got left behind in my room. It just didn’t make it into my kit bag. There I was in the field and I didn’t have a tape measure, and there were objects we were measuring. I thought, Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?
So I just used my hand. I was like, So this thing is three and a half palm lengths long, and I guess we’ll just convert it later. We always just kind of use what we have on hand, and in this case, it was my literal hand.
Sarah Parcak on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016.
In Egypt, a lot of the water comes from this company called Baraka. And so we always lovingly refer to things that we invent as sort of Baraka technology. So if we're going on a bumpy car ride, and there are no shocks in the car, and we're in the backseat with no cushioning, we'll put a bunch of Baraka bottles together with duct tape and that will be your cushion seat.
We're just always coming up with things like that because you have to think on your feet.
Can you describe an early career mistake and what you learned?
I’ve made so many mistakes, it’s hard to pick one out. My ego, I think, got in the way a lot in the earlier parts of my career. My mind was writing checks my body couldn't cash.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot of humility over time because of feeling embarrassed, useless, and terrible because of choices I’ve made. Over time, I’ve learned how gently I need to go with myself.
Now, that’s how I approach other people, too, because we’re all just screwing up constantly.
You don’t want to overwhelm people with advice they’re not looking for. I think women have especially gotten so much terrible advice from men who thought they were well-meaning but really were just dumpster fires of garbage that you needed to run away from.
It’s always about consent when you’re giving advice. I never give advice or mentor without consent. It’s been a long slow process of figuring out.
Have you had any mentors? If so, how did you find them and what guidance have they given you?
My first mentor was probably my grandfather. He taught me what it meant to be a deeply thoughtful, ethical human being because that's what he was.
I pinch myself when I think about the people that I got to work with closely. They’re complete legends in the field.
The first mentor I had for egyptology was a gentleman named William Kelly Simpson. He was a professor of Egyptology at Yale and a resident at my undergraduate college. He is probably one of the most well-known Egyptologists in North America and one of the most well-known in the world. He was this grand figure. He came from old money, so he had this fantastic accent, but he was very sweet.
"You use this money and go to Egypt. Someday you’ll do the same for someone else."
I had just been accepted on my first dig and I had applied for a department fellowship. It wasn’t even a lot of money, maybe one or two thousand dollars. At the time, it seemed like a million dollars to me. It was to help pay for my plane ticket and expenses. I didn’t have much money.
Because of departmental infighting, they said no to my request. They didn’t give money to any college students that year. Kelly was so angry at the department that he just wrote me a check for $2,000. He said in his wonderful way: "You use this money and go to Egypt. Someday you’ll do the same for someone else."
[At the time], I didn’t understand how powerful that was. It was the idea that he thought I would be successful enough with my career to be able to afford to help someone else. He believed in me. He knew I would make it.
It was an extraordinary moment in my life. I’ve taken that sense of generosity and paid it forward. I try to help as many people as I’m able.
I could [also] talk about my Ph.D. supervisor at Cambridge, Barry Kemp. He was a formative person in my life. I think everyone would agree that he still is this preeminent Egyptology thought leader.
I tell everyone that my Ph.D. supervisor was basically Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. You could go to him with this long question, and he'd look at you with these piercing blue eyes and say, "Well, what is it that you think?"
He trusted us to be able to think for ourselves. He didn't want to spoon-feed us anything. And he, in his own way, pushed us to come up with our own ideas.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I once had a terrible professor, and I’m not going to say his name yet. Like so many people, #MeToo.
He tried to convince me to leave archaeology. He told me I wasn’t good enough or smart enough and that it would be the best thing for the field if I never again took another course.
Nothing good ever happened to him by the way, and that wasn’t great advice. I’m glad I didn’t listen.
Years later, I had finished my Ph.D. and I was a professor. I saw him at a conference. I put on my big girl pants and I was polite. It was incredibly awkward. He knew how he had left things, and I knew. Later on, we had a discussion, and then he started being nice and gave advice. It was actually helpful. I thought it felt safe.
At the end of the conference, I walked up and said, "I really appreciate the advice."
And he said, "I owe you an apology. I treated you terribly, and I was wrong about you. I can see where you are going in your career and I have to live knowing I have nothing to do with you."
It was genuine remorse. He wanted to be proud of me, to say she was my student. But he can’t ever say that. It was such self-realization. He knew he really effed up.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
[The previous experience] in some ways was the worst advice and the best advice I’ve ever gotten. It taught me the value of teaching your students as fairly as possible.
You’re always going to remember how someone made you feel. You may not remember the words. I always try to put myself in the person’s shoes and think, How am I making them feel right now?
It just made me that much more thoughtful. I think very carefully about my privilege. I'm a white, cis-gendered, tenured professor at a large research university. There is no more privilege in academia – unless I were a dude – but still an enormous privilege.
When I wrote my book, Archaeology from Space, I realized there aren’t a lot of academics who get to write popular books. It was important who I featured and what I chose to share.
"First of all, don’t ever discount what you’ve done."
I did a big chart of all my references and all the people that I mentioned in the book by name. Half the scholars that I named in the book are women. One-third of the scholars that I mentioned are indigenous. I could have done better, I think, with the indigenous scholars, but I'm very proud of the fact that I worked very hard to center women and indigenous scholars.
I did that intentionally because there’s so much white-washing and “Western-washing” in these kinds of books.
What do you do when you realize the career path you’re on now isn’t what you want?
First of all, don’t ever discount what you’ve done.
I had 10 trips canceled between March and June of last year. I was still in a manic-panic, collect-the-next-shiny-thing race to the top after being a full professor with all the kudos and all the things. That's what academia is right now.
But this year, I was really good to my students. I was a loving and caring neighbor. I took care of my family. I had a garden and made sure that all my elderly neighbors had lots of vegetables all summer, and that made me feel good.
Virtually none of that matters in your yearly evaluation. Still, it's never time wasted.
I would say to anyone who wants a change: Be gentle with yourself. You haven’t failed; you’re not broken. In fact, in realizing that, you are significantly more whole than you think. It takes such bravery to recognize that you aren’t happy.
Give yourself time to grieve, because moving on can be a form of loss. It's okay to sit and feel lost because what you thought you were isn't quite who you want to be. That’s okay.
I also think it should be celebrated. You’re willing to move ahead. You're willing to begin the process of thinking through what might come next, and that should be celebrated because the road ahead is dark. Maybe you don't quite know how it's going to end up. That's okay.
Figure out what your emotional needs are. Come to terms with the fact that you've made the decision.
The interview above has been edited for clarity and brevity.
In the Inverse original series ROOKIE YEAR, leaders in STEM, business, and the arts give us a crash course in early adulthood, breaking down the triumphs, stumbles, and lessons learned from their first year in the working world.