Declassified U2 spy plane images reveal ancient sites


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Consultants from the College of Pennsylvania and Harvard have scanned declassified Chilly Battle-era photos from U2 spy planes to disclose historical buildings throughout the Center East.

Emily Hammer, assistant professor of close to jap languages and civilizations on the College of Pennsylvania and Jason Ur, professor of anthropology at Harvard, painstakingly analyzed 1000’s of once-secret aerial images from the 50s and 60s.

The photographs, for instance, reveal “desert kites,” that are historical stone wall buildings used to entice animals comparable to gazelle. An Assyrian canal system in northern Iraq was additionally noticed within the photos, offering a glimpse into the traditional empire’s authorities and transport community.


The analysis is revealed within the journal Advances in Archaeological Apply.

Chains of “desert kites” seen in U2 imagery captured on Jan. 30, 1960. (Emily Hammer and Jason Ur)

Hammer informed Fox Information that the analysis is especially necessary given the conflicts which have ravaged components of the area in recent times. “These archival photos can be necessary whatever the present geopolitical second, however they tackle further historic significance given the big quantity of cultural heritage destruction within the Center East within the final decade, following the Arab Spring,” she defined, by way of e mail. “The Islamic State intentionally demolished and closely looted many necessary archaeological and historic websites in Syria and Iraq like Apamea, Hatra, and Nimrud.”

Moreover, preventing between numerous factions has completely destroyed entire neighborhoods of traditionally necessary cities like Aleppo and Mosul, in response to Hammer. “The U2 images have turn into invaluable cultural paperwork as a result of they present these locations earlier than the large current destruction,” she mentioned.


One picture captured by a U2 spy airplane in 1959, for instance, reveals the well-known citadel of Aleppo. A UNESCO World Heritage web site, the citadel was broken in 2015 throughout fierce preventing within the metropolis between Syrian authorities forces and rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

A high-resolution U2 photograph of the citadel in Aleppo, Syria, taken Nov. 19, 1959.

A high-resolution U2 of the citadel in Aleppo, Syria, taken Nov. 19, 1959.
(Emily Hammer and Jason Ur)

Hammer defined that the spy airplane footage additionally function an necessary cultural doc of southern Iraq’s Marsh Arabs, who had been brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein. “I used to be shocked that you would see small particular person reed homes and floating reed islands within the 1958 and 1960 marsh villages in southern Iraq,” she mentioned. “Individuals lived a novel way of life within the marshes of southern Iraq for 1000’s of years—herding water buffalo, constructing homes and all method of issues out of reeds, dwelling on floating islands of reeds, planting date palms, and fishing. This way of life has disappeared because the deliberate draining of the marshes by Saddam Hussein and the discount of water circulation by hydroelectric dams. It has additionally been affected by fashionable concepts about marshes as ‘wasteful’ and undesirable areas.”

In one other research, Hammer used U2 imagery to map most of the rivers and canals surrounding the traditional metropolis of Ur in southern Iraq.  “The Euphrates river has moved so much by means of time, and is now at this time about 15 km [9.3 miles] away, abandoning the positioning in the course of the desert,” she mentioned. “However in historical occasions numerous channels of the Euphrates flowed subsequent to town. Due to the U2 imagery, we are able to now work so far these historical rivers and canals and we are able to work to determine whether or not early southern Mesopotamian cities like Ur emerged in an irrigated plain or in a marsh-like setting.”


Beforehand, archaeologists had relied on photos from the CORONA U.S. spy satellite tv for pc program, which ran from 1959 to 1972. Nonetheless, solely the highest-resolution photos from the ultimate 5 years of this system had been archaeologically helpful, in response to the College of Pennsylvania and Harvard researchers. In distinction, the U2 photos are larger decision than even the sharpest CORONA footage.

An inhabited Marsh Arab village and adjacent abandoned village in southern Iraq, photographed during a U2 mission in January 1960.

An inhabited Marsh Arab village and adjoining deserted village in southern Iraq, photographed throughout a U2 mission in January 1960.
(Emily Hammer and Jason Ur)

Aerial imagery can present important clues to archaeologists. In a separate undertaking, for instance, specialists harnessed spy satellite tv for pc imagery and drones to assist determine the positioning of an historical misplaced metropolis in Northern Iraq.

The Qalatga Darband web site overlooks the Decrease Zab river on the western fringe of the Zagros Mountains, and is a part of a historic route from historical Mesopotamia to Iran.


Left: A U2 image of Ur (Tell al-Muqayyar), Iraq, captured on Oct. 30, 1959. Right: a CORONA satellite image of the same site captured on May 4, 1968. (Emily Hammer and Jason Ur)

Left: A U2 picture of Ur (Inform al-Muqayyar), Iraq, captured on Oct. 30, 1959. Proper: a CORONA satellite tv for pc picture of the identical web site captured on Might four, 1968. (Emily Hammer and Jason Ur)

Know-how is a crucial software for archaeological analysis. In 2018, archaeologists in western Mexico used refined laser know-how to find a misplaced metropolis which will have had as many buildings as Manhattan.

File photo of a U2 spy plane.

File picture of a U2 spy airplane.
(Hulton Archive/Getty)


At top, canals and site on the right bank of the Upper Zab River, photographed by a U2 spy plane on Jan. 20, 1960. At bottom, DigitalGlobe image showing the growth of the modern town of Khabat over the same features. (Emily Hammer and Jason Ur)

At high, canals and web site on the appropriate financial institution of the Higher Zab River, photographed by a U2 spy airplane on Jan. 20, 1960. At backside, DigitalGlobe picture displaying the expansion of the trendy city of Khabat over the identical options. (Emily Hammer and Jason Ur)

Consultants not too long ago created a surprising digital reconstruction of a centuries-old misplaced metropolis found in South Africa. In one other undertaking, researchers have shed new mild on the occasions that led to the demise of the traditional Cambodian megacity of Angkor.

Comply with James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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