A new online mapping interface using Cold War-era spy satellite photos has yielded thousands of new archaeological sites across the Middle East, but Israel’s quick urban and agricultural development in its early years diminishes the possibility of new finds here.
The new Corona Atlas of the Middle East, a project completed and unveiled last week, overlays high-definition satellite images taken by the American Corona satellites in the 1960s over more recent satellite images available on Google Maps. The Corona pictures, declassified to the public in 1995, offer archaeologists very crisp aerial shots of a large swath of the Middle East stretching from southern Egypt to Iran.
Close examination of the photos has allowed archaeologists to triple the number of known archaeological sites in the Middle East.
“Because Corona were typically captured during the early morning or late afternoon in an effort to highlight topography, raking sunlight helps illuminate even modestly mounded sites,” Dr. Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas and his colleagues wrote in a 2012 article on the photographs’ use in archaeology.
“Some of these sites are gigantic, and they were completely unknown,” Casana told National Geographic last week. “We can see all kinds of things—ancient roads and canals. The images provide a very comprehensive picture.”
Casana told The Times of Israel in an email that the bulk of the project’s work deals with the northern Fertile Crescent, the arc of inhabitable land stretching from the Persian Gulf to northern Lebanon which encompasses the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. For Israel, he wrote in his 2012 paper, “Corona imagery proved of less value than in other parts of the Near East, as the region had already been heavily built-up by the time Corona was acquired in the 1960s.”
Dr. Michael Press, another archaeologist using aerial photography to better understand the distant past, studied spy satellite photos of the area around the southern city of Ashkelon, whose ancient predecessor was a major Philistine city. He wrote that his attempts to identify archaeological sites around Ashkelon from spy satellite images have thus far proven unsuccessful, and that “it would be hard to find new sites in much of the rest of the country as well.”
“By the time of the CORONA images, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Israel was already fairly well built up, through urbanization and mechanized agriculture — much more than Syria and Iraq where [Casana's] work is concentrated,” Press wrote in an email. Moreoever, he said, unlike Syria and Iraq, the Israel Antiquities Authority has conducted a much more thorough survey of the country’s antiquities sites, he said. “There is also the fact that sites in Syria and Iraq tend to be larger and easier to find on this satellite imagery.”
Casana and his colleagues studied other satellite images of the Jewish state, however, particularly Israel’s border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as part of their analysis of agricultural intensification. From the air, the line dividing the two countries is “is one of the few state borders easily visible from space,” Casana wrote.
Casana et al. wrote that the stark contrast between Israel and Egypt’s sides of the border was “driven by radically different land use practices on either side of the border.”
For Egypt, whose Nile Valley provides plentiful farmland, “the arid desert on the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula, far from centers of population, are used only as extensive pasture for herds of goats and camels.” Israel’s limited land area and booming population prompted the “continued expansion and intensification of agriculture into regions not settled for millennia.”