Declassified Satellite Photographs and Archaeology in the Middle East: Case Studies from Turkey

Article excerpt


Archaeologists have long found the Middle East a region of peculiar frustration when it comes to employing air photographs in their research. The great potential of the region for applying the techniques of aerial archaeology was established as early as the First World War. Indeed, following the early work in Britain, the Middle East, or rather Syria, was to be one of the two areas of the world in which the technique was pioneered. The outstanding name here is that of Pere Antoine Poidebard, the French Jesuit priest, trained by the RAF, whose development of the technique for use in a very different environment to Britain resulted in numerous publications, most notably in 1934 his magisterial La trace de Rome dans le desert de Syrie,(1) and developed in the 1920s and 1930s (Poidebard 1934) Since then, however, aerial archaeology has stagnated in the region. With relatively rare exceptions, most Middle East countries have restricted access to the air photographs held by their military; often inaccessible even to their own nationals The only significant exceptions have been Israel and Jordan in the last 10-15 years. As for actual flying for archaeological purposes, none was undertaken for almost half a century after the Second World War, and it was not till 1990 that the first new aerial archaeology was carried out - in Israel - with results which will have accentuated the frustration of archaeologists (Riley 1993a; 1993b).

Aerial archaeology in Turkey

Readers of ANTIQUITY will need no reminding of the pioneering role of its founder in the development of air reconnaissance and photography. Less well known was Crawford's attempt in 1928 to apply to the Middle East the techniques which had brought such exciting results in Britain. In the event, the attempt brought no permanent results beyond an important collection of glass negatives taken by the RAF over the British mandates of the region: Iraq, Transjordan and Egypt (Crawford 1929; cf. Kennedy & Riley 1990: chapter 3, esp. 51-2). Crawford, however, remained convinced of the widespread applicability of the techniques of aerial archaeology, and of the enormous potential of the Middle East. One has only to look at early issues of ANTIQUITY to see how many articles of the pro-war years were concerned with or were illustrated by air photographs of archaeological sites, a number in the Middle East (e.g. Maitland 1927; Roes 1929a; 1929b). Once again, the countries in question were largely those visited by Crawford, but it is clear that he thought in wider terms in the Middle East, especially in relation to the crop-mark sites so abundant in Britain (Crawford 1953: 50):

If one were to attempt to indicate where the most abundant harvest of crop-sites was likely to be gathered, one would find it difficult to exclude any country in the world outside the Polar Regions and the tropical forests and deserts. . . . There are so few regions that are likely to be completely barren, and so many that will almost certainly be rich and productive.

Notable amongst the 'obviously promising regions' are what he called 'western Turkey and Thrace'.

Turkey remains one of the regions with greatest potential for aerial archaeology anywhere in the world. For those scholars working on the ancient Near East or the Graeco-Roman period around the Mediterranean, the immense archaeological richness of Anatolia in particular is well known. But the size of the data-base could be made immeasurably greater still by the application of remote sensing techniques, not least air photography. As Crawford noted, the extensive agricultural lands of that great peninsula offered opportunities for detecting sites as crop-marks - and, we might add, as soil-marks. A view echoed by Bradford in his influential Ancient landscapes (1957: 5):

. . . in the Mediterranean there is no doubt as to three countries that are now of cardinal importance for air archaeology: - Turkey, Greece and Spain. …