If Google Maps makes it possible to find hidden architectural gems, if archaeologists use satellites to reveal the treasures of the past, it will be a matter of time until the classified records of the transmission of satellites of espionage are used for the same purpose. And now hundreds of forts from the Roman Empire appear in ancient spy satellite images showing regions of Syria, Iraq, and neighboring territories in the “fertile crescent” of the eastern Mediterranean.
The Hexagon and Corona satellites were used for reconnaissance in the 1960s and 1970s, but their data is now declassified. Some of its archived images have enabled new archaeological finds in places on Earth that are often difficult for researchers to visit.
The newly discovered 396 fortresses, visible directly from space, confirm and expand a 1934 aerial survey of the region by French pioneer Antoine Poidebard. Of these, Poidebard recorded 116 forts on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. Archaeologists still agree with the basic conclusion of that nearly century-old study: Rome strengthened its borders. But a new study, published in Antiquity, provides a new perspective.
“These forts are similar in shape to many Roman forts from other parts of Europe and North Africa,” explained Jesse Casana in an interview. They are preserved and easier to recognize. However, they can also, which is a real product of the intensive construction of the fortress, especially during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.”
The study done by Poidebard suggests that the walls were a defensive line against the Persians (more precisely, the Parthians and the Sassanids, who were other powerful powers at the time). But one limitation of his work was that he flew his plane mainly where he believed the forts would be found. And it was studied before modern archaeological standards existed.
The new satellite imagery study by the Casana team, however, was able to cover more ground and counteract the bias of Poidebard’s study. In this way, not only were nearly 400 forts discovered, but they did not show a recognizable north-south pattern of defense against the people of the east; rather, they were scattered.
The new results may confirm the suspicions of some previous scholars, who argued that Poidebard’s 116 forts were too far away to form a connective defense line. Instead, the camps in modern-day Syria and Iraq were probably used to protect caravans transporting valuable goods to and from the Roman provinces while allowing for cross-cultural communication and exchange.
“These images are of high quality,” added Casana, but they also depict a landscape that has been severely affected by modern changes in land use, including urban expansion, agricultural intensification, and the construction of reservoirs. That makes them a unique resource for archaeological research”.
To this advantage, we must add another. All satellite images used in this study are publicly available through the United States Geological Survey. But downloading it is not enough. Casana’s team needed hours to process the georeference and spatially correct the images. These processes are necessary to accurately map parts of the Earth’s surface using GPS technology.
“Our study,” says Casana, also helps to show that an unknown number of other sites probably also disappeared in the period between the flights of Poidebard in the 1920s and the images of Corona in the late 1960s.”
More broadly, the study will also add nuance to how the Romans managed the borders of their empire. But this could also be subject to preservation bias, the authors warn. The density of the forts observed in some areas, as well as the distribution of the forts that remain visible, may reflect the fact that many others have disappeared due to settlement and land use practices. visible, a generation later, in satellite spy images.
As such, archaeologists have found an additional 106 “fortifications” in a subregion of the satellite survey. “We plan to expand the study to search for additional sites, including fortresses and others,” concluded Casana. We will work within our current study area using additional forms of images, such as the latest declassified images, in addition to expanding the region. in other parts of the Middle East”.