U-2 Spy Plane Images Reveal Ancient Archaeological Sites in the Middle East

Two patient archaeologists organized and scanned the images to find structures destroyed or covered up over the last 60 years

Desert Kites
Desert kites, stone structures used for hunting, discovered in the U2 images. University of Pennsylvania

During the 1950s and 1960s, as United States' U-2 spy planes criss-crossed the globe taking thousands of pictures of military infrastructure, they were also digging into the archaeological record. Often, pilots would keep their cameras rolling while passing over the countryside, documenting unknown archaeological sites and landscapes with high-resolution images. Now, a pair of researchers has scanned and organized some of that film, finding new archaeological features across the Middle East.

Older aerial photos are valuable to archaeologists since they can show sites that might be covered over or developed today. But finding high-res images is difficult. According to a press release, images from the CORONA spy satellite that operated from 1959 to 1972 have been useful, but only the last five years of that program produced higher resolution images.

Emily Hammer of the University of Pennsylvania and Jason Ur of Harvard University, who study the archaeology of the Middle East, were aware that a huge trove of high-quality images from U-2 spy planes dating from the late '50s and early '60s were declassified in 1997. However, the pictures weren’t scanned or indexed, which meant sorting through them was a major task.

But when the team met a Chinese researcher who had dug out the U-2 images of his home town, it set them on a new path. “Seeing the amazing quality of those archival photos, we knew that it would be worth the detective work it would take to build a systematic index of them,” Ur says.

The pair began a project to find and scan the U-2 images, traveling to a National Archives facility in Kansas where the rolls of film are kept. There, they unspooled hundreds of feet of film, photographing the negatives using a 100 millimeter macro lens. Afterwards, they used GIS software to stitch the images together and create a georeferenced map.

The team details how they hunted down the photos and gives tips for fellow archaeologists interested in accessing the U-2 images in the journal Advances in Archaeological Practices.

George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports that the hard work paid off. The U-2 film revealed 5,000 to 8,000-year old stone structures known as "desert kites," used to herd and perhaps hunt animals, as well as canal structures built by the Assyrians in northern Iraq. The researchers were also able to use the images to document communities of Marsh Arabs, a culture in southern Iraq that was displaced by the development of hydroelectric dams and the draining of the marshes by the government of Saddam Hussein in the last half of the 20th century.

“People lived a unique lifestyle there for thousands of years, herding water buffalo, building houses and all manner of things out of reeds, living on floating islands of reeds, planting date palms, and fishing,” Hammer says in the release. “Now we can study the spatial organization, demography, and lifestyles of these communities.”

The U-2, which is actually still in service with the U.S. Air Force, didn’t just fly over the Middle East, meaning there are images available for many different parts of the world for any researcher with the patience to track down the negatives. In recent years “space archaeology,” or using satellite imagery to find unknown sites, has become more sophisticated and there are plenty of researchers who would like to peel back the farm fields and urban sprawl that has covered the landscape over the last 60 years to see the sites that lie beneath.

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