Annalee talks to space archaeologist Sarah Parcak about what ancient Egypt can teach us about building thriving cities of the future.
Deep Futures Episode 3: Cities - Sarah Parcak
Sarah Parcak: Now it's recording. There we go. Okay, it's actually recording. Quick question: in terms of words that I use, what is the rating? I mean, not that I’m going to drop F-bombs every two seconds but just…
Annalee Newitz: I want you to meet Sarah Parcak. She’s an archaeology professor who studies ancient Egypt. But she’s also an adventurer who sometimes uses salty language, and she’s a sci-fi fan who really, really loves Indiana Jones, especially the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Sarah: That movie, I mean, I probably saw it a couple times a year growing up. Every archaeologist who's in their 40s, 50s and older, grew up being inspired by that movie.
Sarah leans into the Indiana Jones thing hard. She even references Indy in her Twitter handle, which is @indyfromspace. Among archaeologists, she’s kind of a big deal. She was one of the first TED Fellows, and this year she won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and it’s all thanks to rocket ships.
Sarah: I am an archaeologist, and Egyptologist, and I specialize in using satellite imagery to help map ancient landscapes.
Annalee: Hi, I’m Annalee Newitz, and on today’s episode of Deep Futures, Sarah’s going to tell us about space archaeology—she uses satellites to uncover ancient cities buried by the sands of time—just like Indiana Jones did. She’ll tell us about one amazing discovery, and what Ancient Egyptian cities tell us about how we can make our cities thrive in the future.
Annalee: When Sarah was just a few years out of graduate school, she made a huge discovery that shook up the entire discipline. And it all started with Raiders of the Lost Ark—which, as you may recall, leads its heroes to a mysterious place called Tanis.
Raiders of the Lost Ark VO: Indiana Jones: “The city of Tanis is one of the possible resting places of the lost ark.” Other guy: “The lost ark?”
Sarah: Tanis is an ancient Egyptian city that I have been interested in ever since I was a young child. Of course, because of Indiana Jones, you know, I'm a child of the ‘80s; grew up every Friday night there would be pizza, and we'd get to actually go to a video store and pick out a video. We’d cycle through Willow, Neverending Story and of course movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Annalee: There’s one scene in particular that Sarah loved—it’s the one where Indy and Sallah realize they've got the jump on the Nazis’ archaeologist, Belloq:
Raiders of the Lost Ark VO: “You said their headpiece only had markings on one side: are you absolutely sure?” “Belloq’s staff is too long … [in unison] they’re digging in the wrong place!” [giddy laughter]
Sarah: And then there's that scene in the map room where, you know, Indy, of course, gets the special headpiece of Ra and puts it on the staff and he measured and the light comes through and boom, he knows exactly where to dig.
Sarah: And that just seared itself on my brain in a very sort of deep and sacred space, and so it was this, like, super mythical, magical thing that I saw on the small screen. But when you're a child, of course, everything is bigger than life, and it felt real, and I had no idea that it wasn't the real Tanis.
Annalee: The real Tanis is in northern Egypt, and archaeologists have known about it for more than a century. Well, sort of.
Annalee: By the 1940s, they’d found some temples and tombs, but not all the houses and streets and markets where people actually lived. It would be like if future archaeologists had found New York’s Empire State Building, but nothing else in the city. They would have no context, no sense of how big the city had been, no idea how people lived and worked there. That was the situation at Tanis when Sarah got the idea to look at her childhood favorite archaeological site from space. But people were… skeptical.
Sarah: I think for years and years people were super dismissive of the technology. I mean, I definitely was a hardcore evangelist, I'm like, “Oh my god, there's this technology, and you can use it, you can find sites and it works,” and my colleagues were like, “We don't really do technology.” One of my colleagues actually called me like, “that satellite girl,” which is so problematic on so many levels.
Annalee: She wanted to see a 3,000-year-old street grid, the actual city. So Sarah downloaded some special satellite images that are called multi-spectral. That means every image is actually made up of many layers, each representing a different wavelength of light.
Annalee: Think of multi-spectral images as being like a layer cake. You can look at the whole cake, with every layer intact. or you can magically separate out your favorite layer and admire it on its own. Except instead of chocolate, that layer is made of infrared light. Sarah wondered what she’d find if she looked at each layer of the satellite photos. Would new things become visible?
Sarah: You're looking at imagery in red, green and blue bands, and you’re layering them to figure out what pops in what band and why and how. You have to basically throw the kitchen sink at it in terms of processing techniques, so there are hundreds of remote sensing techniques. Things pop and are really clear on a local, local, so say in a 10 by 10 meter area, I'll fiddle and fiddle and fiddle with the data, think of like Photoshop on crack, right? That's kind of what this is.
Annalee: Sarah likes to listen to music while she’s fiddling—folk music in particular. So this one day, she’s in her office, music cranked up, messing with the data…
Sarah: I was in my office, I was under this, like, gross fluorescent lighting, I'd been working for hours and hours and hours and I'm so in the zone, ‘cause it's a form of meditation for me. Once I'm processing data I lose track of time. Is it five minutes, is it three hours? I don't know. I'm in the zone. And I'm listening to music and I'm just like gotta get it right, gotta get it right. And now, looking at the low resolution multispectral imagery, you couldn't really see much, maybe hints and lines, but when we merge the high resolution imagery and the low resolution imagery together, the whole city outline just popped out, like instantly.
Sarah: And it was a shock to my eyes, because I went from not being able to see anything to being able to see everything. I could see clear phases of construction, you could see clear elite housing, you could see very large buildings that looked like police barracks or administrative buildings. And it just, it was overwhelming to my senses and I sort of, I had to take a moment to let it all sink in, because it was pretty like, “Whoa…” You don't get moments like this very much in terms of data processing.
Annalee: It was Sarah’s Indiana Jones moment—she’d literally found the lost city of Tanis. For over a hundred years archaeologists had been digging in the wrong place.
Sarah: So like I was almost shaking, and I sort of got home and I was just babbling. I went to my husband Greg Mumford, who’s also an Egyptologist, and, “Greg! Tanis, we found… we found all these buildings, you can see everything!” He’s like, “Slow down, let me look. The cool part is gonna be when we really start looking at the data,” like, “This is nice, but we have a lot of work to do.” I'm like, “Okay, you're right, you’re right.”
Annalee: Next, Sarah needed to do something that archaeologists call “ground truthing.” It means exactly what you’d think—digging up the ground to get at the truth.
Annalee: She flew from Alabama to Egypt. When she and her team arrived in Tanis, they stepped out of their 21st century van and into the past. They joined a team of French archaeologists who were already digging, and they agreed to excavate a structure that Sarah had seen from space. It was time to test her theory.
Sarah: And there was about an 80 to 85 percent correlation between what we're seeing on the satellite imagery and what we found on the ground.
Annalee: Sarah was following in Indy’s footsteps, only she wasn’t looking for treasure. She just wanted to know where ordinary people lived.
Sarah: I was super excited to be there and see this amazing building where you could see different phases of construction and architecture emerge. But like I wanted to be there digging and taking notes.
Annalee: Sadly, Sarah herself didn't have a permit to dig that day, so no matter how much she wanted to get her hands on those structures she'd seen from space, she couldn't touch anything.
Sarah: Like I had to physically restrain myself from jumping in the square. I brought my trowel, and they're like, “You don't have permission to dig.” I said, “I know, but just a few scrapes?” It was physical pain not being able to excavate. So it was mixed, mixed emotions.
Annalee: At this point you might be saying, “Okay cool, but what does ancient Egypt have to do with the future?” More than you’d think. Because listen, it had a lot in common with many civilizations today.
Annalee: Egyptians dealt with floods and devastating plagues, there was inequality and greedy, power-hungry politicians. So looking at ancient Egypt—how it evolved, transformed, and survived—it could give us a clear look at our own future. A vision of what we might become, and what our cities might look like in a millennium.
Sarah: It seems like every day I'm reading headlines that are pulled from archaeological articles. It's identical to what happened at the end of Egypt’s pyramid age.
Annalee: Egypt’s pyramid age, for those of you who aren’t Egyptologists, began about 4,500 years ago—that’s 1,500 years before Tanis became Egypt’s capital. Remember, the ancient kingdom of Egypt lasted more than 3,000 years—so, you know, at least 2,700 years longer than the United States has lasted so far.
Annalee: A lot of people think of the early pyramid age, also known as the Old Kingdom, as the greatest time in Egyptian history, but Sarah says it really wasn’t. There was this one ruler, King Pepi II, who was a complete jerk.
Sarah: So under the King Pepi II, things started to get wobbly and wonky. He made some really, really bad bureaucratic decisions. He essentially cut off his nose to spite his face. He removed the taxation structure, and basically gave all these benefits to regional governors, and so it’s sort of similar to tax cuts that have been made for billionaires and millionaires now.
Annalee: And around the time all this was happening, there was a major climate catastrophe. It was basically a global El Niño weather event, probably caused by solar flares. As a result the Nile had low floods for almost a century. It was a natural disaster heaped upon a political disaster.
Sarah: You have all this power flow, tension, you have this large environmental event, and the center cannot hold. That's what you had at the end of the Old Kingdom, so you had 150 years of major internal strife.
Annalee: For the people of Egypt, it would have felt like the apocalypse, and it’s a feeling that many of us would recognize today.
Sarah: It's everything we've studied in headlines, every day, getting confirmed. Patterns repeat themselves again and again and again, it’s why we study collapse, because these patterns are identical. But it's interesting, because we survive every time, we reform every time, we adapt every time. So this panic of, “Oh my god, we're all going to die!” No, we're not all going to die, but so many systems have to be rebroken and reformed, and that does not mean they’re going to be rebroken and reformed for the better.
Annalee: Here’s where things get interesting, because there was no apocalypse, the world did not end. More than a century after the rocky end of the pyramid age, the climate stabilized and farmers had several lucky years of bumper crops. Egyptians rebuilt their kingdom and filled it with new cities that worked better than the old ones did. And how that happened—well, there are lessons for us there too.
Annalee: The capital of this revitalized nation was a brand new city called Itj-Tawy, about 190 kilometers south of Tanis, on the banks of the Nile. Roughly 25,000 people lived there, which was a lot for the ancient world, and many of them had what we’d think of today as middle class jobs. They were merchants, scribes, bureaucrats, artisans, and musicians. And those artists were important—Sarah said most of Egypt’s great literary works were likely written at Itj-Tawy. Though it was far from perfect, the city of Ijt Tawy was also relatively egalitarian, and that’s what helped the city to survive.
Sarah: There would have been a servant class, but for the most part it was a pretty, I guess equal city. So that’s interesting; so you have income equality of sorts, you have lots of artisans. And we know this even because, for middle class individuals had tombs, their coffins were still beautiful, their goods were still beautiful, everyone had access to something. And the result is a result that lasted for hundreds of years.
Annalee: A major reason for Itj-Tawy’s success, other than climate, was political. Its leaders weren’t like King Pepi II, who had rigged the taxation structure back in the pyramid age, they were careful with their resources.
Sarah: If your granaries are full, you can send expeditions abroad, your farmers are happy because they're well fed. You can support your artisans, and your middle class is able to be stable.
Annalee: And in times of hardship, Itj-Tawy’s leaders were judicious about making sure those same resources were distributed equally.
Sarah: Each governor would have taken care of the people in his area. You know, you want to have food, you want to make sure it's rationed, right? Because you don't want to have strife, you don't want to have that loss of control or collapse. I'm sure governors sent grain to other provinces in need, I'm sure they did.
Annalee: Okay, to recap: over 4,000 years ago, Egypt faced many of the same problems we’re dealing with today. Political unrest, inequality, climate change. But instead of collapsing, Egypt’s Middle Kingdom rebooted with cities like Itj-Tawy. What if we applied some of the lessons of ancient Egypt to our cities today?
Annalee: I posed the question to Sarah, who is after all an expert on cities that lasted for centuries. I told her to imagine stepping out of a time machine into a hypothetical city a thousand years in the future—a thriving, healthy city like Itj-Tawy that had learned from the mistakes of the past.
Sarah: Well, I hope that we will get to a point in the future where cities are virtually indistinguishable from nature. So I think we're hearing birds, more bird songs, because there's this idea of us coexisting more with nature. Our roofs are like intertwined vines that all absorb water, and so there's this lack of reliance on utilities. We have no plastic, everything is biodegradable, everything is natural, and it’s beautiful right? Because you can't necessarily distinguish the trees and the flowers from us. We just happen to be living there.
Annalee: Her description made me think of the way Egyptian cities were ruled by the natural rhythms of the seasons, depending on the annual Nile floods to nourish their crops. Except in this future, we’re keeping the climate stable ourselves, by living sustainably with renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. The city and the farm will merge. Sarah thinks our local communities might become more tightly knit as a result, with people sharing food and cooking for each other.
Sarah: There will be much more communal food instead of grocery stores. You know, the culinary arts have always been so important to us. I do think there will be great chefs. We really like to go out to eat and drink, it’s kind of part of who we are, so I think there'll still be restaurants.
Annalee: Sarah told me that most ancient Egyptian commoners rarely ate meat—it was a delicacy reserved for the rich. She imagines these future urbanites will also be vegetarians, though for very different reasons.
Sarah: Obviously cannibals are people that eat people. I think that they'll call us the “anibals,” right? “The evil people who ate animals, and how dare… Ugh.” I think future people will find us disgusting. “What do you mean? Like they didn't care about everyone's lives? What do you mean they actually ate living things?” So they will look down upon us in the same way that we judge or look down upon people in the past. Fossil fuels and meat and all those icky things will be completely gone. All meat will be synthetic, like we’ll be able to get whatever we want, it will all be 3D-printed synthetic food.
Star Trek VO: “I wonder what else is on the menu? One pan fried catfish. Smells like the real thing!”
Annalee: Obviously, some things will stay the same, like class divisions. Still, Sarah believes that those class divisions will have to get a lot smaller if we want our cities to last.
Sarah: Oligarchs gonna oligarch and I think we'll always have an elite class. So what does that mean? I don't know, they get a bonus tree room, they're living above everyone else? They have their own like tree magic flower island, I don't know, but I think things will be more equal. I think for the most part, society will have flattened out. It has to.
Annalee: She imagines that the city might look like the middle class neighborhoods in Itj-Tawy, where there wasn’t a huge gap between rich and poor.
Sarah: Most people will have something similar ish, right? Bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, but I don't think we’ll have things like yards anymore. We’ll have nature, right, and because we will have reclaimed nature, we can spend more time in it collectively.
Annalee: And of course, we won’t stop partying and watching sports—after we’ve gotten our annual ’rona and flu vaccines, of course.
Sarah: We have to get out this competitiveness somehow. whether it's some version of like Quidditch, or something, some sport of the future that hasn't even been invented yet. It definitely will involve a ball or balls of some kind.
Annalee: Sarah says we’ll always have giant monuments like the pyramids, except they’ll take the form of sports stadiums or churches, or something we can’t even imagine yet. That’s part of who we are; we like to get together in giant, cool buildings and yell about stuff.
Sarah: You want to have some kind of national cohesive collective event, because it's that great sense of celebrate, you know? You’re cheering, there's intensity, there's drink, and then there's release and disappointment. Hopefully there's not sacrifice, ‘cause I hope we will have moved beyond it at that point. [Laughs]
Annalee: I asked Sarah what lesson she’s taken from ancient Egypt that helps her deal with tough times. She told me about her last trip to the British Museum.
Sarah: I went upstairs to the third floor where they have their mummy room. And they have all of these scenes from this amazing new kingdom official called Nebamun, and there's iconic scenes of him spearing and hunting for birds in this marsh, and these scenes of Nebamun sitting with his wife feasting. And it just sort of struck me, right, I was in this weird place in my head, caught between like this one world and knowing I was going into another one and feeling very frightened.
Annalee: Sarah says this visit took place when the COVID pandemic was just starting to really freak people out.
Sarah: And there I was looking at an exact scene of this caught between two worlds-ness right? Between life and death. And in spite of all this death, Egyptians were really celebrating life. You know, this is what we're celebrating, we’re celebrating the gift of dance, of music, of nature, of communing with family, this is what's really important. This is what will last. It was a message of love.
Annalee: That really brought home to me why we need to think about history if we want to build a better future. Our ancestors dealt with the same problems we have, and they survived. In fact, they tried to do better.
Annalee: And if they did it, so can we.
Annalee: Thanks to Sarah Parcak, you can follow her on Twitter @indyfromspace. Her latest book is Archaeology from Space.
Annalee: Next time on Deep Futures, I’m talking to a curator who’s using science and technology to reimagine what an art museum can be, and who it's for.
Sarah Schleuning: There was a big yellow, squishy button, and when you pushed the button it started inflating these pieces. So sometimes you would be hugged between them,. you could sit in them and they would push you off. It was so wild.
Annalee: You won't want to miss it. Subscribe to the podcast, and if you liked this episode, leave us a rating or a review. It helps other listeners find the show.
Annalee: Deep Futures is an original podcast made in partnership by Campside Media and Mailchimp. The show is hosted by me, Annalee Newitz, our associate producer is Natalia Winkelman. Research help from Callie Hitchcock, fact-checking by Aleah Papes. Sound design and mixing by Mark McAdam, and our executive producers are Maya Kroth and Matt Shaer. Beep-boop-boop-boop!
Envisioning the future is a daunting yet exciting task. Annalee Newitz profiles fascinating people considering the next century (or even the next millennium). Escape into the distant future to learn what’s coming.
Envisioning the future is a daunting yet exciting task. Annalee Newitz profiles fascinating people considering the next century (or even the next millennium). Escape into the distant future to learn what’s coming.
Annalee Newitz and author Malka Older on the future of democracy.
Annalee Newitz and Dr. Anthony Atala on the future of medicine.
Annalee Newitz and archaeologist Sarah Parcak on the cities of the future.
Annalee Newitz and museum curator Sarah Schleuning on the future of art.
Annalee Newitz and chemist Dr. Raychelle Burks on the future of crime solving.
Annalee Newitz and Armando Elenes on the future of agriculture.