AIA Lecture: U2 Spy Plane Photos and Archaeology in The Middle East
Thursday, February 21, 2021 at 7:00 pm MST Via Zoom

Declassified military imagery from planes and satellites plays an important role in landscape and environmental archaeology. The identification of ancient sites, fortifications, road networks, and irrigation networks in modern satellite images, like those viewable in Google Earth, is limited by the degree to which these features have survived the destructive effects of development and intensive agriculture in the last several decades. Historic imagery sources, especially large imagery archives generated by the US during the Cold War, provide archaeologists with a window into the past, before these processes took hold in many rural parts of Asia. In the mid-late 1990s, the archaeology of arid regions in Eurasia was revolutionized by the declassification of CORONA “spy satellite” photographs showing large swaths of the region in high-resolution, as they appeared in 1967-1972.

Now Eurasian archaeology has a new source of even older high-resolution historical imagery: photos from U2 spy planes, captured 1958-1960. In this lecture, I present recent efforts to make U2 photos more accessible to archaeologists and historians and case studies showing how these photos can be used to shape archaeological and historical conclusions. Using this new data source has required considerable detective work in the National Archives. However, the outcomes have been significant for generating a wide variety of unique datasets. These datasets allow for a better understanding of environmental distribution of prehistoric hunting traps (“desert kites”) in eastern Jordan, the size of the early Mesopotamian city of Ur in southern Iraq and this city’s ancient water supplies, and the spatial demography of twentieth-century communities living the marshes of southern Iraq.
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