How Satellite Imagery and Crowd-Sourcing Can Revolutionize Archaeology

In 2016, seasoned archaeologist Sarah Parcak stood and spoke at the annual TED Conference in Banff, Canada, announcing the fully-funded launch of the first-ever crowd-sourced archaeological program. Dr. Parcak’s vision for this project was to allow the masses to play a role in archaeological site survey and research, which would expedite the path to archaeological discovery and preserve cultural heritage for many.

Aiming to publicize archaeology by seeking the service of thousands of “citizen scientists,” Parcak hoped to fully revolutionize the modern field of archaeological study. This envisioned revolution would build a larger network of archaeological data, drawing public attention to the need for archaeological discovery, and prioritizing the preservation of archaeological sites from threats such as looting (GlobalXplorer 2019). But Parcak’s ambitious plan was not without a fundamental method for archaeological survey: aerial satellite imaging.

Using high-quality aerial imagery provided by DigitalGlobe, thousands of randomly selected satellite images would be uploaded onto the GlobalXplorer portal and made available for volunteer participants to analyze (GlobalXplorer 2018). Learning how to spot potential archaeological sites as well as signs of looting, these suitingly-named “Xplorers” would be trained in video courses provided by the GlobalXplorer team (Hersher 2017).

The participants would next be shown a series of 300-by-300-meter satellite image tiles that they could then identify as a potential archaeological site or looted site (see Figure 1) (GlobalXplorer 2018). As these pictures would be filtered through tens of thousands of trained volunteers, images with the most positive feedback would be marked for trained specialists, such as Sarah Parcak herself, to analyze and further investigate (GlobalXplorer 2018). While the location of sites with confirmed looting activity could be forwarded to local government authorities, GlobalXplorer’s team of archaeologists could determine whether a potential site was ready for physical survey and documentation by partner local archaeologists (GlobalXplorer 2018). With as much manpower as it exhibits, GlobalXplorer is able to fully map large portions of entire countries, as they did Peru by analyzing 14 million total individual tiles in preparation for their first expedition (GlobalXplorer 2018).

Figure 1. The GlobalXplorer platform showing the crowd-sourced site identification program. Photo by GlobalXplorer Platform.

In total, Xplorers from around the world helped locate over 19,000 sites of archaeological interest in Peru, of which roughly 40 high-interest sites were selected for a ground-truthing expedition carried out by local archaeological and geological experts (GlobalXplorer 2018). The captured data would then be turned over to Peruvian authorities to allow the sites to be registered under the protection of the state (GlobalXplorer 2018). During their expedition, on-ground experts recorded what they believed to be undocumented geoglyphs (see Figure 2) related to Peru’s renowned Nasca lines (GlobalXplorer 2018).

Figure 2. Drone Image of geoglyphs in Peru identified by GlobalXplorer’s crowd. Photo by Luis Jaime Castillo Butters.

The successes in Peru are merely a glimpse of what the archaeological world can achieve when pairing a wealth of geographical data provided by satellite imagery with masses of individuals who see the value in locating and protecting sites of archaeological and even cultural significance. With further development of these opportunities and global networks, archaeology can be improved to better protect the sites that hold importance throughout local communities as well as the world.

For more information on GlobalXplorer, or to get involved when GlobalXplorer plans its next expedition, visit:


GlobalXplorer. “About the GlobalXplorer° Project.” GlobalXplorer. Last modified 2019. Accessed September 11, 2022.

GlobalXplorer. “GlobalXplorer° Completes Its First Expedition: What the Crowd Found in Peru.” Medium. Last modified April 10, 2018. Accessed September 11, 2022.

GlobalXplorer. “Welcome to GlobalXplorerº!” Medium. Last modified April 3, 2018. Accessed September 11, 2022.

Hersher, Rebecca. “Space Archaeologist Wants Citizen Scientists To Identify Archaeological Looting.” NPR. Last modified January 31, 2017. Accessed September 11, 2022.

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