What Went Through My Head When I Found Out I Won the 2016 TED Prize
The last five years have been horrific for archaeology.
I am a space archaeologist, and before 2011, I spent my time happily processing satellite images to spot subtle changes to the Earth’s surface that hint at ancient sites, hidden from view. But since 2011, my work has changed. Like many of my colleagues, I now spend a large chunk of time mapping and monitoring the destruction of ancient sites. The looting of antiquities has always been an issue; the pyramids of ancient Egypt were ransacked not long after they were “sealed up.” But satellite imagery shows that wide-scale, systematic looting is taking place across the Middle East, and that its frequency has increased dramatically in recent years.
This is in addition to the intentional destruction of sites. Archaeologists sometimes know about threatened sites before the general public does, and we could all see the writing on the wall as ISIL approached Palmyra, one of the great cities of antiquity—a true symbol of ancient diplomacy and culture. ISIL is all about shock value: “What can we do today that the world will notice and that will help us recruit?” They treated Palmyra like Halloween candy, savoring each destructive bite, stretching it out to make it last as long as possible. You can almost predict, piece by piece, what they’re going to destroy next.