Space-Age Archaeology Digs in Satellite-Images Help Scientists Find the Site of an Ancient City Buried in the Sand

By Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 19, 1992 | Go to article overview

Space-Age Archaeology Digs in Satellite-Images Help Scientists Find the Site of an Ancient City Buried in the Sand


Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IN a downtown law office here, attorney George R. Hedges and filmmaker Nicholas Clapp are lamenting the "15 minutes of fame" that has come with their role in discovering the lost city of Ubar, "Atlantis of the sands," announced early this month.

"Now that we found it, the media have been in a feeding frenzy ever since," says Mr. Clapp, the lifelong Arabophile who had been piecing together bits of literature, scientific history, and artifacts since 1983 to find a treasure many thought did not exist. He recounts a decade of fruitless knocking on foundation doors for support in his search for the 5,000-year-old fortress city.

"Where was all the attention when we needed it?" he asks.

Now the public imagination has been captured by fables of the ruins once described in the Koran as the "city of towers" and in "Thousand & One Nights" as the center of the frankincense trade for 30 centuries.

Historians are celebrating the opening of new windows on commerce, trade, and religious ritual in the region that gave rise to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Geologists and archaeologists are cheering the successful use of satellite-imaging techniques to pinpoint the area in a section of sand so remote it is known as the Rub'al Khali or "Empty Quarter."

"This is a wonderful discovery for the world of archaeology," says McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago (UC) Oriental Institute. "{The discovery} and those to come will fill in parts of the puzzle from Solomon to the Queen of Sheba. It's also nice to know the technology we are all investing in is showing fruition," says Mr. Gibson.

From a hotel in Paris, British explorer Sir Ranulf Fiennes, who co-led the expedition, explains that the discovery of Ubar will help build a more cogent tracing of the development of civilization from its origins in Mesopotamia. If the discovery proves valid, the spread of civilization to the Arab peninsula will antedate current predictions by a full 10 centuries.

"More recent frankincense routes to western Arabia are well documented," Mr. Fiennes says. "But the bigger picture of trade with the Sumerians seems to be forgotten. This will fill in the holes."

Gibson and UC colleague Tony Wilkinson say the space-imaging and ground-penetrating radar used to help find Ubar have been in common use by geologists, oil companies, and others for more than a decade. But several analysts say innovations in noise reduction, atmospheric corrections, and filtering by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists were the breakthrough to the history-making find.

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