Cold War-era spying apparently yielded more than state secrets. New analysis of satellite images from the Middle East has revealed a bevy of previously unknown ruins in the forms of ancient roads, cities and canals in a region spanning from Egypt to Iran — and encompassing the Fertile Crescent.
As detailed by Dan Vergano in National Geographic, a team from the University of Arkansas explored declassified images snapped during a 12-year U.S. spy satellite mission codenamed CORONA. The mission, which operated between 1960 and 1972, was intended to expose Soviet missile bases and military camps with a resolution of two meters (6.6 feet).
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The satellite images are grainier than satellite pictures taken with today’s technology, but timing is everything. Since the 188,000 photos were taken before much major development took hold in the region, signs of the ancient civilizations are still evident in the images.
As University of Arkansas archaeologist Jesse Casana told National Geographic, “we can’t see a site that someone has covered up with a building.”
Among the largest sites detected in the imagery are what appear to be Bronze Age cities in Syria and Turkey, as evidenced by ruins of walls and citadels. Casana estimates at least two of these ancient cities are “gigantic,” covering more than 123 acres.
The photos offer a wealth of information to archaeologists studying the region. The University of Arkansas team began their investigations with a list of 4,500 known archaeological sites in the Middle East. The photographs, which were declassified in 1992, have yielded an additional 10,000 previously unknown sites.
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All this comes from a program that had operated under utmost secrecy. According to the National Geographic report, film from the spy satellites was delivered from space via parachute-equipped buckets.
And there’s more where these images came from. The CORONA program operated beyond the Middle East, also exploring regions in Africa and China. Archaeologists are now eager to investigate images from those regions in the hopes of finding further archaeological sites that have since been obscured by irrigation projects and expanding modern cities.
As Casan said, “We don’t want to stop here.”
The CORONA Atlas of the Middle East project was unveiled at the Society for American Archaeology’s annual meeting. Explore photos from the project here.