Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Spying on the Ancients Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by Andrew Curry

[image]Roads radiate from the 5,000-year-old site of Tell Brak in Syria. (Courtesy University of Chicago) [LARGER IMAGE]

Images once scrutinized by American intelligence analysts are now providing evidence of a civilization that vanished five thousand years ago. More than 800,000 images taken by Cold War-era spy satellites code-named CORONA were declassified in 1995, and today archaeologist Jason Ur of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute is using some of them to help identify ancient roads dating back to the days when Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization. When scanned into a computer and overlaid with other data, the images show how cities like Tell Hamoukar and Tell Brak in Syria probably supported themselves and connected to other major sites in the fourth and third millennia B.C. "Excavations give us lots of data, but they're tiny little pinpricks. Now we're fattening up what we know about the landscape between them," says Ur, whose study is published in the spring issue of Antiquity.

The CORONA images capture a moment in time. Taken by primitive spy satellites from the late 1950s to the 1970s, they preserve a landscape nearly untouched by population booms, dam projects, and irrigation-intensive cash crops like cotton that have permanently altered the region. "These give us access to a landscape that doesn't exist anymore," Ur says. "They're obsolete for intelligence purposes, but they've really found a niche with landscape archaeologists."

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America