Declassified aerial spy photos to aid archaeological discoveries

Declassified aerial spy photos to aid archaeological discoveries

Hundreds of feet of photo film taken by US U2 spy planes during the Cold War has been given a new scientific purpose. The images, taken during the 1950s and 60s, are proving to be an archaeological goldmine, with thousands of aerial photos of deserts, steppes, fields and villages from across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. They offer a new perspective on archaeological sites that have either been damaged or have since disappeared.

This is the first time that U2 spy images have been used for archaeological research, representing a new and exciting window into the past. The project has already shed light on pre-historic hunting practices in Jordan, ancient canals and Arab marsh communities.

Historic aerial images have been used for landscape archaeology before, the majority coming from the CORONA satellite programme in the early 70s. However, the images are low resolution, often making historical features undecipherable.

In comparison, the U2 spy images were taken at 70,000 ft with a higher resolution camera and display much clearer features. They are also older, giving archaeologists the chance to see features that had disappeared by CORONA’s time.

“Older images are much better because archaeology is in many ways a race against time” said Emily Hammer from the University of Pennsylvania who, along with Jason Ur of Harvard University, runs the project. “We were able to map many features that have been destroyed since 1960 and are no longer visible in modern imagery. This is particularly true for villages, corrals and wheel structures, which are smaller…and more vulnerable to total erasure by modern agriculture and development.”

The photos have provided unprecedented images of ‘Desert Kites’ in Jordan. These are pre-historic hunting traps which were used about 5,000 - 8,000 years ago to hunt gazelle and similar animals. While preserved by the desert conditions, they are normally hidden to modern mapping and have received extensive damage from agricultural expansion.

The photos have also revealed an ancient canal system in the Neo-Assyrian capital of Nimrod, which has since been paved over with roads and hidden by housing developments, and illuminated life in Arab marsh communities. These communities and ancient way of life disappeared when hydroelectric dams and actions by Saddam Hussein’s government drained the marshes.

The project has involved a lot of effort and dedication. The U2 images have been declassified since 1997, but they have not been digitized or labelled. Hammer and Ur had to select the spools that they wanted from the Federal Records Center in Kansas, which then had to be moved to the National Archives in Maryland to be viewed. Once there, the pair studied hundreds of film spools, selecting the relevant images and photographing the negatives using a 100mm macro lens. The images were then geo-referenced using GIS software to match the images with their real-world locations.

Given the long-winded process, it is not surprising that only a couple dozen photos have been digitized so far. Hammer and Ur are currently focusing on the images of the Middle East and have only scraped the surface of what they could show. Their database is growing daily, which will allow other researchers to access the U2 photos for the first time. Given the number of images they have at their disposal, and the significant landscape changes through conflict and development since the 1960s, they are confident that the project will offer new perspectives on lost wonders, making the aerial records both historically and archaeologically important.

Photo by ER Hammer. 


Added: 11th April 2019

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