corona atlas of the middle east
April 26, 2014

Cold War Satellite Images Help Find Middle Eastern Archaeological Sites

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Reconnaissance photos captured by Cold War-era spy satellites have tripled the number of known archaeological sites located throughout the Middle East, the creators of a new atlas revealed Thursday at the Society for American Archaeology's annual conference.

According to Dan Vergano of National Geographic News, the archaeologists behind the new Corona Atlas of the Middle East report that a survey of satellite images revealed thousands of previously undiscovered sites in Iraq, Turkey and Syria – including long-lost cities that could be among the earliest in human history.

“Some of these sites are gigantic, and they were completely unknown,” said University of Arkansas archaeologist Jesse Casana, who presented the team’s findings at the meeting. “We can see all kinds of things – ancient roads and canals. The images provide a very comprehensive picture.”

Casana told Vergano that he and his colleagues began with a list of approximately 4,500 known archaeological sites spread throughout the Middle East, and that analysis of the spy satellite images revealed an additional 10,000. The largest sites were located in Syria and Turkey and are believed to be Bronze Age cities that included ruined walls and citadels. In fact, two of them reportedly cover over 123 acres, he noted.

The images were captured by the Corona spy satellites between 1960 and 1972, and released by US defense personnel nearly two decades ago following the end of the Cold War, Vergano explained. Only a small fraction of the nearly 190,000 photos taken between 1967 and 1972 were used in the atlas, and the pictures (which were used to locate Soviet missile bases and military facilities) had a resolution of 6.6 feet (two meters).

While that resolution pales in comparison to the images taken by modern-day satellites, the Corona images were taken at a time before larger cities (including Mosul in Iraq and Amman in Jordan) began to encroach upon nearby archeological sites, Casana told the National Geographic reporter. The expansion of dams and the farming industry have made it difficult to detect sites that are clearly visible in the older, lower-resolution imagery.

Casana and his colleagues have been working hard to associate landmarks present in the Corona images, which they purchased from the US Geological Survey, to mapped landmarks in pictures obtained from present-day satellites, Vergano said. They hope to continue their efforts in other parts of the world, including archaeologically attractive parts of the world such as China and Africa, he added.

Corona was only one of the US photo intelligence satellites that was operational during the 1960s and early 1970s, according to the USGS. It, along with satellites code-named Argon and Lanyard, captured reconnaissance photos from space and returned the film to Earth, where it would be processed and analyzed. The images captured by these satellites were officially declassified by Executive Order in 1995.

“The first successful Corona mission was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1960,” the agency said. “The satellite acquired photographs with a telescopic camera system and loaded the exposed film into recovery capsules. The capsules or buckets were de-orbited and retrieved by aircraft while the capsules parachuted to earth. The exposed film was developed and the images were analyzed for a range of military applications.”