IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 3
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Distance Archaelogy

Richard Mertens

Deep into the Landscape

Carrie Hritz, AM'01, studies archaeology in a place she has never set foot. Ancient Mesopotamia lies mainly within the borders of modern Iraq, off limits to American archaeologists since the 1991 Gulf War. But that hasn't prevented Hritz, a graduate student in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, from pursuing her research. Hritz studies Mesopotamia in a basement room at the Oriental Institute (OI), using photographs taken by American spy satellites three and four decades ago.

She is looking for clues to what she calls "relic landscapes." The mounds of ancient cities and towns create much the same pattern of light and shadow as do craters on the moon. Faint lines crisscrossing the desert reveal long-abandoned canals. The photos have helped her find such canals well beyond the area where they were known to exist, shedding new light on the extent of ancient Mesopotamian irrigation and the civilization that depended on it. "We knew it was complex," Hirtz said, "but from viewing these things, it was even more complex than I thought."

The United States launched its first spy satellite in 1960, just months after the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane. Special cameras mounted on the satellites photographed Earth in broad strips as the satellites passed overhead. When a canister of film was exposed, it was ejected and snagged by an airplane over the Pacific.

Archaeologists in the OI use photos taken by CORONA satellites between 1963 and 1980—when U.S. intelligence was keenly interested in what was going on in China, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, but also in the Middle East, part of the contested ground of the Cold War. Arthur C. Lundahl, SB'39, SM'42, an expert in photointelligence who worked on the U-2 spy plane program and later on the early spy satellite programs (he briefed President Kennedy on reconnaissance photos during the Cuban missile crisis), recognized early on that the imagery had civilian uses. He suggested that the photos be shared with civilian government agencies, a practice that began in 1967. In the early 1990s Smithsonian Institution secretary Robert McCormick Adams, AB'47, AM'52, PhD'56, urged the government to declassify the images and make them available to the public. No one knew better than Adams, who had done archaeological surveys in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, how valuable the photos would be to scientists. "There was a general awareness that this was an extraordinary new thing that would extend our capabilities beyond anything we had seen," said Adams, now an adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis.

Since becoming available in 1996 these Cold War spy photos have proved an unexpected boon for archaeologists. Allowing them to study places they cannot visit in person is only the beginning. The greatest usefulness lies in the photos' power to reveal features that are almost invisible on the ground. A discoloring of the soil, a difference in vegetation, or even slight changes of terrain show up with remarkable clarity. And because the photographs cover wide areas, they are helping archaeologists study broad patterns of land use in the ancient world.

"This is a tool, but it's a fundamental tool," said Tony Wilkinson, associate professor in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations. A pioneer in using satellite imagery, in 1999 he started the OI's Center for Archaeology of the Middle East Landscape, or CAMEL.

Jason Ur, who like Hritz is a CAMEL researcher and a graduate student in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, studies the rise of cities in upper Mesopotamia—now Syria—toward the end of the fifth millennium B.C. He has visited the area twice, but his real insights have come from satellite imagery. Using Geographic Information System (GIS) software he loads satellite photos into a computer, marks the position of all the ancient settlements he can find, and then traces the roads between the settlements. The roads—archaeologists call them "hollow ways"—are shallow depressions about 100 yards wide and two to three feet deep, formed by the passing of people and herds over many centuries.

"These things are next to impossible to find on the ground," said Ur, sitting before an OI computer screen. But they show up on the photos, and when he marks them in red on the computer, the result is startling. Bright starbursts appear on the screen, showing roads radiating from major settlements. Such images reveal many details, including the surprising density of ancient settlements, the agricultural territories exploited by different towns and villages, and the economic relationships between places.

Satellite imagery cannot replace fieldwork. In some terrains, like hills and mountains, the photos are powerless to show the subtle variations of soil and topography that reveal archeological sites. And at some point archaeologists must check what they see in the photos against "ground truth." To know that a particular pattern of light and dark is an ancient mound, the archaeologist must visit such a site in person. But once that relation—a key to the photos, so to speak—is established, large parts of the landscape can be interpreted. Carrie Hritz's ground truth is fieldwork done by Adams in the 1950s and 1960s. By seeing how sites he visited appear in satellite images, she can find similar sites in areas he could not reach.

The photos not only are providing new answers to old questions in archaeology—where did people live and when?—but also are raising new questions about how people shaped and ordered the ancient landscape.

"That's the way new questions develop," Wilkinson said. "You get new technology and you suddenly think of new questions you didn't think of before."

— R.M.



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