Dr. Sarah Parcak’s Favorite Maine Place

When she’s back in Maine, find the space archaeologist picnicking on MDI’s Seal Harbor Beach.

Seal Harbor Beach on Mount Desert Island
Photographed by Heidi Kirn
First Job
Hostess at her family’s restaurant, where the city’s most famous resident visited weekly. “Not many people can say, ‘I grew up seating Stephen King.’ Lovely guy.”
Recent Distinction
Among others, a Guggenheim Fellowship, awarded in 2020 — surreally, just hours after Parcak posted a massively viral Twitter thread about letting her first-grader go unschooled during the pandemic.
Current Project
A new web platform for her nonprofit, GlobalXplorer, which will allow volunteers around the world to help map archaeological sites.
By Jesse Ellison
From our May 2022 issue

“Space archaeologist” is a job title so cool, you might think it was made up. When Dr. Sarah Parcak went on CNN in 2016, after winning the million-dollar TED Prize for innovation, the network instead called her “Indiana Jones with 21st-century tech.” Parcak, who graduated from Bangor High before studying archeology at Yale and getting her PhD from Cambridge, is an Egyptologist and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she founded and directs the Laboratory for Global Observation. She and her team use tools like infrared imagery and satellite photography to find signs of ancient life on Earth — or, as she puts it, to “map the past,” discovering pyramids, tombs, and thousands of ancient settlements that no one knew existed.

That she ended up in academia, Parcak says, is “in no way surprising.” Her parents ran Benjamin’s, a classic Bangor restaurant and tavern, which meant a lot of nights and weekends spent with her grandparents, who both worked at the University of Maine. As a kid, she helped her administrator grandmother prep documents for the university senate, and her grandfather, a forestry professor, often took her to the research barn to visit the cows. The Orono campus “always felt like home,” she says. Her grandfather had been something of a pioneer in the use of aerial imagery, inspiring her to take a class on it at Yale. The rest is (kind of literally) history.

In one of her TED Talks, Parcak compared her work to looking for sand dollars on the beach, so it tracks that her favorite place back home is the beach at Seal Harbor, on Mount Desert Island. Her mom and aunts and uncles all played there as kids, then she and her brothers did. Now, when she visits, she brings her son. “It’s just an iconic Maine scene,” Parcak says, with wading pools, a stream, a harbor full of boats, and comparatively few tourists.

Growing up, her family brought picnics to the beach, and if she and her brother behaved, they got ice cream on the way home. Once in a while, they stopped for popovers at Jordan Pond House. “But you never could score the Jordan Pond House and an ice cream on the same day,” Parcak says. “On one glorious occasion, we were allowed to get the popovers with ice cream in the middle — I still remember it in my middle age. Now, I go and I’m like, ‘Okay, we’re locked and loaded: lobster rolls, popovers, ice cream! Let’s go!’”

Headshot courtesy of University of Alabama at Birmingham