Pioneers above Jordan: Revealing a Prehistoric Landscape

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The military needs of the combatants in the First World War drove the rapid development of flying and photographic reconnaissance in Europe (Nesbit 1996; Watkis 1999) which in turn was applied to archaeological reconnaissance soon after. Much less well known is the development of aerial reconnaissance in the Middle East in the same period. This other theatre of war had different needs and witnessed important experimentation in aerial reconnaissance. After the war, the transfer of power to Britain (Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine) and France (Syria, including Lebanon) provided opportunities for its application to very different conditions, landscapes and remains. Little-known lands were explored and totally unknown archaeological landscapes were revealed.

Two of the most remarkable developments occurred in the 1920s (cf. Kennedy 2002b), the better-known being the succession of flights over Syria by Pere Antoine Poidebard which culminated in his magisterial La Trace de Rome dans le Desert de Syrie (1934; cf. Mouterde & Poidebard 1954). Many of the sites recorded by Poidebard had already been explored on the ground, many were not Roman and he pressed too far in his interpretations of the data, which was obtained almost exclusively from aerial reconnaissance. Nevertheless, his 1934 publication was a landmark, with a thick volume of plates richly evocative of landscapes, places and structures. His grand map of the 'Limes' is an impressive (if flawed) contribution to Roman frontier studies (Kennedy & Riley 1990: 50-52; cf. Nordiguian & Salles 2000; Denise & Nordiguian 2004).

Far less familiar is the work of a handful of serving officers of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the neighbouring British Mandate of Transjordan. This revealed a hitherto totally unknown prehistoric landscape, which, even before it was seen to extend into neighbouring countries (and now over immense areas from northern Syria to Yemen [Kennedy 2011]), should have been recognised as the more significant discovery. Although less exotic than the birds, monkeys and patterns of Peru's Nazca Lines, these 'Works of the Old Men' are far older, and more numerous and extensive. Unfortunately, the discoveries have remained largely opportunistic and no grand work of synthesis has yet emerged; indeed, they were overshadowed for several decades by both the prominence of Roman studies and the quantity and quality of Poidebard's publications (1931: 356-57, 1934: 191-96; cf. Dussaud 1929).

Initiation and development in Transjordan: First World War

The Palestine Front of 1915-18 saw armies operating over a broad triangular swathe from Egypt to the northern Hedjaz and Damascus (Figure 1). As this was a region for which few good maps existed, both sides rapidly brought aircraft into service to remedy the situation. Their initial role of visual reconnaissance was soon complemented by tens of thousands of aerial photographs. These were both low-level obliques of specific military dispositions and high-level photographs, to be used as photomaps and the basis for cartography (Cutlack 1941: esp. 46, 64, 70-71, 93; cf. Jones 1937: chs V & VI). Between 1 February and 12 September 1918, the No. 304 Squadron of the Deutsche Luftstreitkrafte (DLRK) took 2914 aerial photos (Kedar 1999: 32; cf. von Waldenfels 1925); the No. 1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) reported it had exposed a total of 5395 plates in 1918, from which they made a staggering 51 356 prints (captured in a contemporary photograph [Figure 2] AWM 'Statistics of 1st Squadron AFC'). Many photographs were destroyed during or soon after the war but the large cache surviving in the archives of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and those in the Bayerisches Kriegsarchiv in Munich attest to the quality and type of everyday reconnaissance photography. Beyond the photograph itself, considerable efforts were expended at the time cataloguing--or geo-referencing, as it is now called--the places and landscapes photographed. …