Khalid al-Assad lost his life protecting the history and culture of his country. This 83-year-old scholar was retired, but still an active expert at the museum that he used to run in Palmyra, Syria. On July 13th, 2016, ISIS demanded he tell them where all the cultural treasures were hidden. Fearing that ISIS would destroy, steal or sell them, al-Assad refused to help them. A month later he was dead. An acquaintance, Abu Ahmad, said, “He knew they would kill him, but he said, ‘I’m not going to leave the city. I’m staying.’”
After the global economic crisis of 2008 and the rise of groups such as ISIS, there has been a huge increase in numbers of stolen historical items appearing on the black market. Tombs and temples in places such as Egypt and the Middle East are being illegally excavated. The valuable pieces within are stolen and sold on auction websites. This is happening every day. Archaeologists around the world are flummoxed by this situation.
Archaeologist, Dr. Sarah Parcak, has won the 2016 TED Prize of $1 million by proposing that ordinary people should help in the fight against looting.
She calls herself “Indy from Space.” This is a nod to both the fictional character Indiana Jones, and the fact that she uses space technology in her work.
Modern satellites can image the ground down to a resolution of about ten inches. This power means that things as small as a tablet computer are visible. Using this detail, Sarah’s team can map the small variations in the surface of the ground. This data is input into a computer, and shapes that were invisible to the naked eye are revealed.
Sarah’s idea to save these historic treasures is to find every unknown archaeological site in the world! To achieve this ambitious idea, she is using the TED prize money to make a computer game. Players get a real satellite image to look at. They then see if they can find any shapes of buildings hiding under the soil. They don’t get any location information and are encouraged to report anything they find. This helps protect the sites from thieves trying to find them. The data then goes to qualified archaeologists who share their discoveries with the gamers.
Although this process is fun, there is a very serious side to this. Khalid al-Assad gave his life because history is worth protecting. Historical items tell us about our common history as human beings, Sarah says, uniting us. And, if “the past is worth saving, … we’re worth saving too”.