Aerial Archaeology in Jordan

Article excerpt


The earliest air photographs of archaeological sites in Jordan were taken by German aviators in 1917-18 and then, shortly after, by British and Australian pilots (cf. Kennedy 2002a). Although such photographs can be invaluable, occasionally preserving details now lost and often showing a context now much changed, they were largely opportunistic. Within just a few years, however, the aerial view was being used explicitly for research. Early issues of Antiquity carried articles by two RAF pilots flying from RAF Amman, the former Ottoman airfield at Marka (Maitland 1927; Rees 1927, 1929). Both men offered commentary and interpretation on their photographs and one in particular (Maitland 1927) was the first to illustrate the so-called 'Desert Kites'. This type of site, noted by terrestrial commentators for a century, were now seen with great clarity for the first time in dramatic aerial views (see below). O.G.S. Crawford visited a number of British airfields in the Middle East with an imaginative and revealing plan: that future RAF air photo reconnaissance training flights be carried out over archaeological sites and for the routine transfer to the UK of the resulting declassified photographs (Crawford 1929, 1955: 193). Although he had limited success, some 1700 glass negatives may still be seen in the Institute of Classical Studies in London including hundreds of Jordanian sites. During this same period, the great French scholar Pere Antoine Poidebard had single-handedly pioneered aerial reconnaissance for archaeology in Syria and directed it to the elucidation of what he called 'La trace de Rome dans le desert de Syrie' (1934; cf. Mouterde & Poidebard 1954). His evocative aerial photographs revealed a network of Roman forts and roads scarcely hinted at till then and plainly extending into the neighbouring British Mandates of Iraq and Transjordan. In 1938-9 the oriental explorer and archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein took up this challenge and was flown by the RAF in search of Roman military sites for his planned book on the Roman frontier in Iraq and Transjordan (Gregory & Kennedy 1985).

The Second World War (1939-1945) and post-war upheavals interrupted aerial archaeology in Jordan for a generation. But, like its neighbours, Jordan was still photographed extensively from the air; aerial surveys, usually for military mapping purposes, produced considerable archives of vertical photographs. The RAF has hundreds of such photographs from the early 1940s; most were small-scale but, where access could be obtained, could be used to map large features. More important were the collections held by the Military Survey Unit (in Jordan). In the early 1980s Jordan provided the newly established Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East (1), with a complete set of c. 4000 large format (c. 18 x 18cm) film diapositives, taken by the commercial company, Huntings, over all of western Jordan in 1953.

This information dramatically increased knowledge of Jordan's past. In 1994 the Department of Antiquities' database of known sites (JADIS) listed 8680 sites for the entire country, although its editor guessed that the figure could be between 100 000 and 500 000 (Palumbo 1994: 1.9). In this same period all the Huntings photographs were systematically examined and interpreted (Kennedy 1997). These covered only the western part of the country, were still relatively small-scale (c. 1:25 000) and recorded only what was visible on the surface and many had been taken in the middle of the day when shadows were largely absent (Kennedy 1998b: 51-5). Nevertheless, some 25 000 archaeological features, or 'sites' were identified and more intensive interpretation of some groups of photographs revealed that still far more sites could be found (Kennedy 2001a & b). It was surmised that a more reliable estimate of potential 'sites' recorded on these photographs was indeed probably nearer 100 000.

The principal author of this paper (Kennedy) has been working in Jordan since 1976 engaged in a variety of surveys and excavations, but frustrated (until 1997) that aerial reconnaissance was not possible. …