Archeologists Are Using Spy Satellites To Remotely Study Sites In Afghanistan

Google Earth View of Sar-O-Tar, a walled city almost 2,000 years old. Google Maps

Central Asia has played a crucial role in connecting the East and the West throughout history, and archeologists believe that much is still undiscovered. Unfortunately, some key regions are currently not accessible to researchers due to Taliban occupation. Therefore, a team from the University of Chicago has begun to use satellite data to perform remote archeology.

The collaboration is funded by the US Department of State and they now have access to commercial satellite data, US spy satellite images, and military drone images. These images are 10 times better than publicly available ones. The project also has the blessing of Mohammad Ashraf Ghan, the World Bank's former top anthropologist and current president of Afghanistan.

The team has recently discovered 119 caravanserais, essentially roadside inns where travelers could rest. They are about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) apart, which was equivalent to one day of travel for large caravans. The inns are located on the road that connected the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent to Isfahan, the capital of the powerful Safavid Empire.

The caravans on the road often transported precious cargo like silk, gems, and spices, as well as more affordable cargo like dried fish. The sites date to the late-16th and the early-17th century. For a long time, archeologists had assumed that both the road and the Safavids empire was in decline after Europeans began sending ships to Asia during the early 1500s. However, findings in the last 20 years show including the caravanserais show that that the very opposite was true. 

“There is a long-standing view that once the Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean no one bothered to cross Central Asia,” project manager Kathryn Franklin told Science. “But this shows a huge infrastructure investment of the Safavids a century later.”

The team has also discovered over 1,000 ancient villages, towns, or cities that followed the course of the Balkhab river as it shifted course over more than a millennium. Understanding when these villages were inhabited will help archeologists gain insight into the Silk Road, which was the trade artery between the East and West for centuries.

The researchers are not just using aerial views of the areas in question, but also employing unpublished fieldwork journals and 15,000-year-old photos. They even got some retired archeologists (who were there before the Soviet invasion of ‘79) to help organize this impressive collection.

A large subset of images and geospatial maps are now publicly available and can be seen on the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscape (CAMEL) webpage.

[H/T: Science]

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