A satellite image shows a 17th century caravanserai (outpost) which served people traveling the Silk Road.

Going Where Archaeologists Cannot, Spy Satellites Reveal Thousands of Forgotten Ancient Sites in Afghanistan

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Ancient sites may come into in the line of fire when war breaks or a building project begins. Destruction and looting could be prevalent at such times, but archaeologists often believe there is nothing they can do to confront these problems. During war, the area is too dangerous to run in and salvage ancient treasures, let alone excavate or explore any newly unearthed locations. But satellite imaging can help them in what at first may appear to be an insurmountable task. Sometimes it can even aid in revealing previously unknown ancient sites. Such is the case with thousands of sites which have been recently discovered using images obtained by spy and military satellites over Afghanistan. Researchers hope their findings can tell us more about long-forgotten kingdoms and help protect the archaeological sites.

According to Live Science , archaeologists examining fine-grained spy satellite and military drone images have identified huge caravanserai (outposts) used by Silk Road travelers as well as Parthian canals buried by the desert sands and the ruins of Zoroastrian fire temples and Buddhist stupas. With these findings, the number of known archaeological features in Afghanistan has been increased to more than 4,500.

Aerial imagery of Tar-o-Sar, where remains of an ancient Parthian civilization have been unearthed.

Aerial imagery of Tar-o-Sar, where remains of an ancient Parthian civilization have been unearthed. (Digitalglobe, Inc .)

David Thomas, an archaeologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, told Science that the discoveries are exceptional, “The capability to explore a relatively little known region efficiently and safely is really exciting. I'd expect tens of thousands of archaeological sites to be discovered. Only when these sites are recorded can they be studied and protected.” Thomas is not part of the current project, but has also completed remote sensing work in Afghanistan.

The discovery of massive sites which archaeologists believe date to 17th century goes against the mainstream perspective that caravan routes had fallen into disuse in the 15th and 16th centuries; making way for more popular sea routes. Project manager Kathryn Franklin of UChicago said, “There is a long-standing view that once the Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean no one bothered to cross Central Asia. But this shows a huge infrastructure investment of the Safavids a century later.”

An example of three sites newly mapped by CAMEL in the Balkh region

An example of three sites newly mapped by CAMEL in the Balkh region. ( DigitalGlobe)

The mudbrick outposts could apparently hold hundreds of people and their livestock. An analysis of the imagery shows the caravanserai were set up approximately every 20 kilometers (12 miles) - the distance Science estimates a caravan could travel in a day. Emily Boak, a UChicago heritage analyst says the caravans would have  been loaded with gems, spices, silks, wood, dried fish, and porcelain – depending on their origin and destination. The precious nature of the goods likely inspired caravanserai builders to construct them close together.

Caravan on the Silk Road, 1380.

Caravan on the Silk Road, 1380. ( Public Domain )

The new mapping project, known as the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership (AHMP) , runs from October 2015-October 2018. The work is a continuation of studies Soviet archaeologists conducted decades ago. It is being funded by a $2 million grant from the U.S. State Department. Archaeologist Gil Stein of the University of Chicago (UChicago) in Illinois has been credited with coming up with the project and putting together a team of US and Afghan researchers. They have been focusing most of their efforts on locations near cities which are undergoing rapid development and areas identified as high priority for mining development by the US Geological Survey.

Survey training at Tepe Maranjan in Kabul, October 2016.

Survey training at Tepe Maranjan in Kabul, October 2016. ( Alejandro Gallego )

So far, they have found that archaeological sites are more at risk from urbanization and looting than potential mining activities, which are receiving more attention by the media. Stein is trying to prevent the destruction of archaeological sites in Afghanistan by working with the Afghan Institute of Archaeology in Kabul and Kabul Polytechnic University to create a geographical information system (GIS) which can aid in the planning of future development.

Another threat to the archaeological sites in Afghanistan is the Taliban, which destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. Nonetheless, the researchers say they have seen more destruction taking place at ancient sites not in Taliban-territory. 

Qarawal Tepe in Northern Afghanistan has been extensively looted--the 2013 image shows the site marked by thousands of pits.

Qarawal Tepe in Northern Afghanistan has been extensively looted--the 2013 image shows the site marked by thousands of pits. ( USGS and DigitalGlobe )

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