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A satellite photo of Tell Rif'at in north west Syria in 1961.

This 1961 satellite photo shows Tell Rifaat in northwest Syria; it's now completely surrounded by a modern town.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY INTERNET ARCHAEOLOGY/ JESSE CASANA, JACKSON COTHREN AND TUNA KALAYCI

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published April 25, 2014

A study of Cold War spy-satellite photos has tripled the number of known archaeological sites across the Middle East, revealing thousands of ancient cities, roads, canals, and other ruins.

In recent decades archaeologists have often used declassified satellite images to spot archaeological sites in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. (Related: "'Lost' New England Revealed By High Tech Archaeology.")

But the new Corona Atlas of the Middle East, unveiled Thursday at the Society for American Archaeology's annual meeting, moves spy-satellite science to a new level. Surveying land from Egypt to Iran—and encompassing the Fertile Crescent, the renowned cradle of civilization and location of some of humanity's earliest cities—the atlas reveals numerous sites that had been lost to history.

"Some of these sites are gigantic, and they were completely unknown," says atlas-team archaeologist Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas, who presented the results. "We can see all kinds of things—ancient roads and canals. The images provide a very comprehensive picture."

The team had started with a list of roughly 4,500 known archaeological sites across the Middle East, says Casana. The spy-satellite images revealed another 10,000 that had previously been unknown.

The largest sites, in Syria and Turkey, are most likely Bronze Age cities, he says, and include ruined walls and citadels. Two of them cover more than 123 acres (50 hectares). (See also: "Drought Led to the Collapse of Civilizations.")

A satellite photo of an archaeological survey around Tell Hamoukar, eastern Syria.
Signs of ancient habitation are visible in this satellite image of Tell Hamoukar in eastern Syria.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY INTERNET ARCHAEOLOGY/ JESSE CASANA, JACKSON COTHREN AND TUNA KALAYCI

But, says Casana, "it's not just new places to excavate. We have a real way with all these sites to look across the whole Middle East and see how it was connected."

The new Middle East atlas reflects both the opportunities and challenges facing archaeologists, who must handle ever larger amounts of data from excavation sites and entire regions, says information-science scholar Eric Kansa of the Alexandria Archive Institute in San Francisco, who spoke at the meeting. "This is big data," Kansa says. "We have the opportunity to really blow up the scale of our efforts in archaeology."

Cold Warrior

The end of the Cold War led to the public release of Corona spy-satellite images by U.S. defense officials almost two decades ago. The spy satellite made images from 1960 to 1972, and the atlas samples only some of the 188,000 images taken from 1967 to 1972 by the last generation of the satellites. The images of the Earth's surface, intended to expose Soviet missile bases and military camps, had a resolution of two meters (6.6 feet).

A satellite photo of a defense system in the USSR.
A missile launch site near Chelyabinsk in the USSR is outlined in this 1969 image.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NATIONAL RECONAISSANCE OFFICE

Current imaging satellites, such as the privately owned DigitalGlobe based in Longmont, Colorado, return better resolution images, but "they can't go back in time," says Casana.

The Corona images, he explains, were made before cities such as Mosul in Iraq and Amman in Jordan overran the many archaeological sites near them. Dams have also flooded river valleys, covering many other archaeological sites. As cities grew, the industrial farming and irrigation that supported them grew too, obscuring roads and sites clearly visible in the spy-satellite images. (Related: "The Dam That Will Flood Homes and History Across Southern Turkey.")

"Even with much better resolution, we can't see a site that someone has covered up with a building," Casana says.

Information Warfare

"This project is just incredible," says Syro-Palestinian archaeologist David Schloen of the University of Chicago. "It's amazing what their atlas can do."

The mapping team, for example, set up their site to allow you to look at the 1960s images of a given location side by side with views of it today.

Two satellite photos comparing the marshlands of southern Iraq from the 1960s to early 2000s.
The 1960s image at left captures an area of southern Iraq's marshes, many of which have since been drained. The photo at right is of the same location in the early 2000s.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY INTERNET ARCHAEOLOGY/ JESSE CASANA, JACKSON COTHREN AND TUNA KALAYCI

Corona satellites photographed the Earth in swaths 120 miles (193 kilometers) long by 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide. Film strips were delivered from space inside parachute-equipped buckets, and the film's stretched and distorted views of the Earth required special optics to sort out. The existence of the photographs was officially kept secret until 1992.

Much of the atlas team's work has involved tying landmarks in the Corona images, purchased from the U.S. Geological Survey, to mapped landmarks in modern-day images. The landmarks also helped computers remove distortions in the original spy-satellite images.

"We don't want to stop here," Casana says. Many of the Corona images cover other areas of great interest to archaeologists, including Africa and China.

"Corona is amazing," he says. "We really have coverage from almost everywhere."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

163 comments
Rita Woodward
Rita Woodward

A very interesting piece. In those long ago places trade brought them wealth. Now they use war. Very sad.

D. Kirby
D. Kirby

Thank you NatGeo for this splendid piece. While studying archaeology at university, we did analysis of aerial photos for man made objects, and it is amazing what can be seen if one knows how to look.

There is so much to say in praise of this work; however, many people have said it. Particularly, though, my hat is toffed to Barry Taylor for his comments-every one of which I agree with.

Gil Carlson
Gil Carlson

I'm surprised that the detail is so good considering how long ago they were taken. I would like to see some images of South America taken with today's technology.


There has long been rumors from indigenous people living deep in the jungles of cities created long ago by aliens from some other planet, and talk of openings found that led to underground caves containing huge cities and even of a UFO discovered in them!


OK, you think I'm crazy for even mentioning aliens, but some of the best info on aliens has been that which has been  leaked from our government - For example:

http://www.blue-planet-project.com/

Moshe Shertzer
Moshe Shertzer

An interesting article. What a pity that not a sample description was provided from the discoveries, like a large ancient city or citadel, if any of them had been explored.

Hugo Leggatt
Hugo Leggatt

It would be interesting to know how far south in the Nile valley they go.

Pete Field
Pete Field

What is, has been before. There is nothing new under the Sun. 

Barry Benjamin
Barry Benjamin

Soooo much more can be done with these images, population trends, migrations (animal and human), light pollution,  weather patterns, floods, eruptions, earthquakes, ice cover, sea levels, transportation patterns

Peg Relyea
Peg Relyea

Fantastic reading. I am interested in Ur ofthe Chaldees..

Marcelo Redruello
Marcelo Redruello

Amazing,What other places this cold war machines scan around the world

Vasant Nadkarni
Vasant Nadkarni

Any similar shots of Gangetic basin or Indus Valley civilization? Said to be the cradle of civilization.

Gail Emer
Gail Emer

Amazing! I would like to see more.

William Manatee
William Manatee

That shot of Tel Hamakour looks like a parquet floor.  Signs of habitation escape me, however.

Sumanlata Goyal
Sumanlata Goyal

Maybe it is time to show the world about some other civilization, older than anything you have done so far. India. The western areas have cities which date back from 8,000 year on record, earlier records were destroyed on purpose.

L steffen
L steffen

Since you have access, maybe you can find Noah's Ark

Kevin Starnes
Kevin Starnes

The 1961 photo of Tell Rifaat reminds me of a profile shot of someone's head...someone with a very square chin, huge ear canals and a tiny little upturned nose.

Nancy Buscher
Nancy Buscher

Technology today is like a run away train with unbelievable wonders left in its wake. It makes me wish I were young again for the marvels I will not live to see.

D. Merrill
D. Merrill

 I'm hearing  all the lawyers licking their chops in the we were here first 1st battle too 

D. Merrill
D. Merrill

The distinct rumbling of housing boom is pretty loud.  

.

Now that the whole world can see where these sites are, I expect the black market is bursting.  All you have to do is build a home on top of a likely area and no one can see what you are excavating in the basement.

Eric Malan
Eric Malan

This just makes one wonder, what other important facts have been withheld from society. Unfortunately this type of behaviour is perpetrated by Governments and people in powerful positions! Makes you think!

Roberto Chiandotti
Roberto Chiandotti

Imagine a would without war and our tech adressed to research and study our home Earth. Oh, we hope by days ...

Lynn Clarke
Lynn Clarke

Fascinating to see these pictures - so much to pick up from on high.

Midge Eveleigh
Midge Eveleigh

Can't wait for further developments.  How interesting

John Van Every
John Van Every

makes one wonder what it would have been living then

Susan Ward
Susan Ward

These photos bring a small recognition of the vast wheels of time and history before us.

Juan Garay
Juan Garay

Really excellent. Images that contains history of a world unkown for many people.

Barry Taylor
Barry Taylor

I have become despondent recently about the median caliber of "News" which panders to celebrity interest and rating more than substance, facts, or social value.  Items like this, and much of NPR's reporting, reaffirm my faith there are entities out there that care, have a brain, and are more interested in documenting the human condition than getting two more points in the rating game ginning out what they think Jimmy Six Pack wants to see,  This type of reporting is terrific. Please no not let some numbers crunchers force you to kowtow to advertisers seeking "better numbers."

Linda Lea Orr
Linda Lea Orr

It's very interesting! It would be nice, to know more about the archeological sites and discover more about the historical dynamics in the early the Middle East.

Woody Wobblestick
Woody Wobblestick

The god Marduk RA walks among us! All praise to his wonderful magnificence. He has found everything - we can all go home now and make a cup of  tea.

Ed Vandersterre
Ed Vandersterre

As an archaeology student in the 1970s, we used remote sensing techniques such as magnetometers, resistivity surveys and even dowsing. Never guessed back then that satellites  would make finding sites so easy. Bravo. Plan to check out some sites in Mexico and Peru.

Greg Buchanok
Greg Buchanok

The missile launch site appears to have the sign of David in the center. Just follow the triangular lines.

Marduk RA
Marduk RA

There are monolithic structures in China which contain the very same symbols you will find in ancient Mesopotamia. These structures predate by many millenia the dates you currently ascribe to the beginning of Chinese civilization.


Many of you still do not realize there are many great pyramids in China and Peru which are very visible indeed, as the ruins are largely intact, but your "controllers" keep the information from the general population or hide it on the back page of some publication.

Mark Powell
Mark Powell

lol I wonder if marduk thinks he really is a god? this guy is awesome!!

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