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Old cities through satellite images

Old satellite images reveal lost cities and previously unknown ancient sites


Archaeologists have discovered numerous archaeological sites scattered across the Middle East thanks to work on the new Corona Atlas of the Middle East, which features Cold-War satellite images from Egypt to Iran, and encompassing the Fertile Crescent, one of the cradles of civilization and location of some of humanity’s earliest cities. According to a report in the National Geographic, the satellite photos have tripled the number of known archaeological sites across the region, revealing thousands of ancient cities, roads, canals, and other ruins.

There were already around 4,500 known archaeological sites across the Middle East, but the satellite images have revealed another 10,000 that were not previously known about.  The largest sites, with some covering more than 123 acres, are believed to be Bronze Age cities which ancient walls and citadels.

"Some of these sites are gigantic, and they were completely unknown," says atlas-team archaeologist Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas, who presented the results. "We can see all kinds of things—ancient roads and canals. The images provide a very comprehensive picture."

Tell Rifaat - Syria

This 1961 satellite photo shows Tell Rifaat in northwest Syria; it's now completely surrounded by a modern town. Photo credit: Internet Archaeology / Jesse Casana, Jackson Cothren and Tuna Kalayci

The advantage of the satellite images, explained Casana, is that they were taken between 1960 and 1972, a period of time before cities such as Mosul in Iraq and Amman in Jordan overran the many archaeological sites near them.  Many ancient sites have since been flooded by the construction of dams, and industrial farming and irrigation also obscured roads and sites, which are still clearly visible in the spy-satellite images.

The massive coverage of the photos also means that, not only does it reveal new places to excavate, it also provides a way to “look across the whole Middle East and see how it was connected," said Casana.

However, the sheer quantity of ancient sites provides a real challenge for the field of archaeology, which must handle ever larger amounts of data from excavation sites, and there are simply not enough archaeologists, and not enough funding to tackle all 10,000 sites which have been pinpointed in the images.

"This is big data," said science scholar Eric Kansa of the Alexandria Archive Institute of San Francisco. "We have the opportunity to really blow up the scale of our efforts in archaeology."

Featured image: A reconstruction of a Mesopotamian city. Satellite images have now revealed traces of such cities which had been lost to the pages of history. Image source.

By April Holloway



"It is about time we use sattelites for goof reasons."

We already do! There are so many beneficial uses of satellites beyond what you are referring to.

- wodun

It is about time we use sattelites for goof reasons. This is another great tool that has been underutilized for discovering new sites and getting the big picture of the past and throughout these old regions. I can't wait to see what comes from all of this, we need to get some people out into the fields to get to work on all these new sites.

Thank you for this Great imfo

Is it possible to get these sites marked on a world map? If not, then, how can one get their latitude and longitude locations?

aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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