Spy Satellite Reveals 10,000 'New' Mideast Archaeological Sites

Until now, researchers knew of 4,500 in the region; images were taken during Cold War by U.S. eye-in-the-sky looking for Soviet missile, military bases.

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1961 satellite photo showing Tell Rifaat in northwest Syria. Screenshot from National Geographic
1961 satellite photo showing Tell Rifaat in northwest Syria. Screenshot from National Geographic

Until late last month, there were some 4,500 known archaeological sites in the Middle East. However, following the analysis of American Cold War-era spy satellite photographs of the region, that number is now about 15,000, National Geographic reports.

The discovery of some 10,000 ancient cities, roads, canals and ruins was made by archaeologists heading the newly launched website of the Corona Atlas of the Middle East.

"Some of these sites are gigantic, and they were completely unknown," said Jesse Casana of the Corona archaeological team, who presented the results at the Society for American Archaeology's annual meeting.

"We can see all kinds of things - ancient roads and canals. The images provide a very comprehensive picture," said the University of Arkansas researcher.

The largest sites were found in Turkey and Syria, include ruined walls and citadels, and likely cities from the Bronze Age, which in the Middle East spanned 3,300-1,200 B.C.E.

The Corona spy satellite photographed images from the earth's surface from 1960 to 1972, the purpose being to expose Soviet missile bases and military camps. In the wake of the end of the Cold War, U.S. defense officials released the photos almost two decades ago.

Not surprisingly, the discoveries have shaken up archaeologists.

"This is big data," said Eric Kansa of San Francisco's Alexandria Archive Institute, who spoke at the archaeology society's meeting in Austin, Texas. "We have the opportunity to really blow up the scale of our efforts in archaeology."

The atlas team's Casana added that the photos reveal "not just new places to excavate. We have a real way with all these sites to look across the whole Middle East and see how it was connected."

Ancient temple uncovered by archaeologists in Sudan, March 24, 2014.Credit: AFP