Googling the past: how I uncovered prehistoric remains from my office

Looking at the earth from above can reveal incredible secrets. delayed gratification

Archaeology is the study of the remains of the past but has long been predatory on the sciences and their ever-growing technologies. I was brought up as a student in 1970s Britain, when we learned of the wonderful revelations to be made through aerial viewing of almost any human landscape.

Today we have moved on to add, first, satellite imagery to our arsenal, and now the astonishing virtual globes any one of us can use to explore many of the most remote and difficult places in the world. This was never clearer to me than during the past two years, when I began finding thousands of prehistoric sites in the Middle East … from my desk in Perth, Australia, using Google Earth.

Archaeology from the air

Aerial reconnaissance for archaeology – Aerial Archaeology – has been an indispensable part of fieldwork in most of north-western Europe for decades. Hundreds of flights are dedicated annually to archaeology, which provide access to millions of aerial photographs. It would not be overstating it to say this technique has been transformational for the discipline.

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Known sites and landscapes recorded cost-effectively, monitored routinely and mapped, as well as new discoveries, have all added to the database. In Britain, for example, the immense number of new sites recorded has transformed ancient landscape studies.

Although the Middle East witnessed important pioneering aerial reconnaissance in the 1920s and 30s it was largely confined to the British and French Mandates and ended with the Second World War and independence movements.

In the decades since, the landscape of the entire Middle East has been transformed through massive development, largely driven by a population explosion. In Jordan, for example, the population has increased by almost 2,000% since 1943, equivalent to an increase in Australia from the 7.5 million we had in 1947 to 150 million now. In short, the Middle East was deprived of one of the most powerful tools for discovery, recording, mapping and initial interpretation at the very time it was most needed.

But there have been a few glimmers of light.

Googling the past

It has always been relatively easy for archaeologists in Israel and Jordan to obtain aerial photographs and, since 1997, Jordan has supported me in an annual programme of aerial reconnaissance along with my colleague Dr Robert Bewley.

More recently still, the quality of available satellite imagery has improved significantly with the declassification of US military imagery from the 1960s onwards. And now we have virtual globes – Google Earth and Bing, providing extensive high-resolution imagery over large areas of the Middle East.

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At a stroke and within a very short period of time, archaeologists who were accustomed to working without access to aerial imagery, have had immense landscapes opened up for exploration from their home office. For Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan there is extensive high-resolution imagery; for Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman, high-resolution coverage is more limited but increasing.

The consequences can be measured immediately, although it will be some years before the detailed impact is known.

At the very least, many archaeologists can see their site or area of interest in colour and useful detail. Many users now produce maps based on Google Earth imagery. In our Aerial Archaeology in Jordan project, Google Earth imagery is used routinely and symbiotically with our aerial reconnaissance.

Although even the best Google imagery cannot substitute for low-level aerial photographs, it does provide a superb photo-map offering vertical views hard to obtain easily from helicopters or aircraft. The major recent impact has been in Jordan’s Arab neighbours where aerial archaeology is not allowed and even access to archive aerial photographs is limited or impossible.

What did we find?

Large parts of Syria, for example, have now come into sharp focus. One example of the change concerns the prehistoric stone-built structures called kites. French archaeologists reported fewer than 300 in 1995; today we have more than 900 including many in areas where none were previously known.

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The greatest potential impact will come in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia has not normally given access to archive aerial photographs although they are the only viable means of exploring its immense area (2.15 million sq km) and often daunting landscape. Although Yemen and Oman have benefitted from more extensive ground work, both suffer from the same absence of a key tool.

Although 19th century travellers and recent archaeologists noted extensive remains, there was little scope for quantifying what survived. This was especially true of the stone-built structures the bedouin call “the Works of the Old Men”, which are all probably prehistoric.

Recent systematic interpretation of a single high-resolution “window” of Google Earth for an area near Jeddah underscores, counter-intuitively, the surprisingly rich archaeological remains even in the bleakest landscape.

Some 2,000 stone structures were recorded, many of them of a type familiar from eastern Jordan, but a local variant. In a second “window” we have recorded 281 Kites, many of them in forms different from those long-known in Jordan and southern Syria.

A third “window” has revealed a score of tracks leading to an ancient settlement, each flanked for an overall total of several kilometres by burial cairns, Pendants (a cairn with a “tail” of small cairns), keyhole, trumpet and various other shapes of what are probably burial places.

A new perspective

There is the potential now for much of “Interior Arabia”, from northern Syria to Yemen, to be explored systematically and its visible remains mapped. Preliminary interpretations can emerge from creating sites, analysing maps and setting the known data against a variety of backgrounds (geology, soils, hydrology, climate, fauna and flora etc).

Aerial Archaeology – whether working with aircraft or satellites, cannot answer many of the questions of interest to archaeologists. But it can be an indispensable tool for building the big picture and establishing the immensely enriched database available to archaeologists.

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The programme of Aerial Archaeology in Jordan will continue. It provides a rich database of low-level detailed imagery and a permanent record of sites that are often under threat. More than that, it can assist in the interpretation of data from the wider region where aerial reconnaissance is impossible and ground exploration harder or impossible. It will remain part of the increasingly rich mixture of tools for exploring these “works of the old men”.

The digital exploration of the Middle East can involve at least as much time as traditional aerial reconnaissance, but it gives us a new perspective on some of Earth’s most ancient sites.

Developments both in the field and at home can be followed on our blog.