petra
June 9, 2016

Huge monument discovered at Petra

By analyzing high-resolution satellite images and using aerial drones to snap photographs of the area, a pair of archaeologists have discovered an enormous ceremonial monument hiding in plain sight at the Petra World Heritage site in what is now southern Jordan.

The discovery, which was made by Sarah Parcak, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Christopher Tuttle, executive director of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), was reported in a recent edition of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, according to National Geographic.

Detail of the discovery at Petra

Credit: I. Labianca

Parack and Tuttle explained that they used Google Earth, WorldView-1 and WorldView-2, along with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to find and map the monument, which is almost as long as an Olympic swimming pool and twice as wide. Believed to be a ceremonial platform, it is located just one-half mile (800 meters) south of the ancient city’s center.

The discovery comes as a bit of a surprise, the authors wrote, considering that Petra is one of the most well-known and well-surveyed archaeological sites on Earth, and yet the structure indicates that there are still features yet to be discovered in the 102 square mile (264 square km) park.

Petra monument image with no graphics

Another view of the platform. Credit: I. Labianca

A new addition to the ‘precious’ cultural heritage site

From the middle of the second century BC, when it was the capital of the Arab tribe called the Nabateans, until its abandonment at the end of the Byzantine period in the seventh century AD, Petra was a bustling center of caravan trade, according to National Geographic.

Now a popular venue for tourists, its existence was largely unknown to the west until the 19th century. UNESCO, the agency which oversees World Heritage sites, has called Petra “one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage,” and in 2014, Smithsonian Magazine featured the site on its list of the “28 Places to See Before You Die.”

As for the newly discovered structure, reports indicate that it is comprised of a 184 foot by 161 foot (roughly 56 meter by 49 meter) platform that encloses a slightly smaller platform, the latter of which had been paved using flagstones. A small building was build atop the interior platform, facing the east, where a row of columns which had been home to a staircase can be found.

According to National Geographic, the monument is unlike any other structure located in Petra, and might have been built during the early years of the caravan city. It likely was used as part of some kind public ceremony, which the authors noted would make it the second largest, elevated, dedicated display area discovered to date in Petra, second in size only to its Monastery. While it has yet to be excavated, the discovery of pottery dating to the middle-second century BC suggest that construction on the platform was started early on by the Nabataeans.

Tuttle praised the effectiveness of satellite imagery and drones in locating the never-before-seen monument, telling Nat Geo, “I'm sure that over the course of two centuries of research [in Petra], someone had to know [this monument] was there, but it's never been systematically studied or written up. I've worked in Petra for 20 years,” he added, “and I knew that something was there, but it's certainly legitimate to call this a discovery.”

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Image credit: I. Labianca