Submit your own Neatorama post and vote for others' posts to earn NeatoPoints that you can redeem for T-shirts, hoodies and more over at the NeatoShop!

Aerial Archaeology

The following article is from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader.

If you had to list the tools an archaeologist uses, you’d probably include a pick, a shovel, and maybe a trowel, a brush, or even a dental pick. Here’s one to add to your list: an airplane.


In 1899 Italian archaeologist Giacomo Boni was leading an excavation project at the Roman Forum, the massive collection of structures that made up the center of ancient Rome, when he decided to augment the slow, painstaking work on the ground with something new: he took photographs of the site from a hot-air balloon, floating 250 feet off the ground. The photos gave Boni a perspective nobody had ever seen before. The entire site— about seven acres— was laid out below him, much the way you’d see the site on a map.

Within a decade, aerial photography was being used at ancient sites around the world, and a whole new field of study— aerial archaeology— was born. The field has expanded exponentially in the century since because of advances in both flight and imaging technology, and today is considered a major part of archaeology in general. And while it is most often used to expand understanding about already known sites, it’s used to discover new ones, too. Here are the stories of a few of those discoveries, with some insights into the tools and tricks of the trade developed in the years since Boni’s humble balloon flight.


In 1920, British air force pilot and archaeology enthusiast Lionel Rees was flying over a vast, remote desert region in what is now Jordan when he saw what seemed to be three large circles drawn on the empty desert below him. They were enormous— one was more than 1,200 feet in diameter— and they were so close to perfectly round that Rees felt they had to be man-made. He took photographs from his plane and wrote about the circles in archaeology journals. Amazingly, though, they were largely ignored for decades and have only been formally studied in the last 20 years, during which time several more “Big Circles,” as they are known today, have been discovered in Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Ranging from 700 to 1,400 feet in diameter, the circles are actually made from low rock walls, a few feet high and a few feet thick, constructed at least 2,000 years ago— possibly much longer. Nobody has any idea who made them or what purpose they served. And nobody had any idea they were there until Rees spotted them from his airplane in 1920. Studies of the circles— and searches for more— are ongoing.


(Image credit: GothamNurse)

In 1925 another British air force pilot, Gilbert Insall, was flying over southern England— not far from the famous ancient ruin Stonehenge— when he spotted an odd pattern of crops in the farmland below. It was the discovery of what aerial archaeologists now call “cropmarks.” Simple explanation: the buried remains of ancient ruins can affect crops planted above them, creating discernible patterns in those crops. For example, the remains of a square structure lying beneath a wheat field can result in a square pattern in the field by stunting the growth of the plants directly above them. And while such patterns may be difficult to make out from the ground, they’re often easy to see from an airplane. In this instance, Insall took photographs of the odd patterns he saw and showed them to local archaeologists, who were intrigued enough to start a dig at the site. A few years later, it was announced that Insall had discovered an ancient Stonehenge-like ruin, built around 2200– 2300 BC. Instead of the rings of stone pillars Stonehenge is famous for, however, this site had rings of wooden poles— 168 in total— hence the name “Woodhenge.” (Bonus: In 1928 Insall discovered another ancient ruin, this one more than 5,000 years old.)


(Image credit: Carlos Delgado)

During World War II, progress in both flight and photographic technology resulted in extensive use of aerial photography to gather intelligence. When the war ended, many people with years of experience studying such photography applied their skills to aerial archaeology. One of the most notable: John Bradford, who, as a British intelligence officer, was stationed in the Apulia region of southeastern Italy. (The region includes the “heel” of the boot of Italy.) After the war, Bradford started studying aerial photographs of Apulia that he’d taken both during the war and after. Through careful study of cropmarks in the photos, Bradford was able to discern the ruins of several previously unknown ancient human settlements in Apulia, some more than 8,000 years old, and all of them holding a wealth of information about Italy’s earliest civilizations. How many ancient settlements did Bradford discover? More than 200. Many of the sites are still being studied today.


(Image credit: NASA)

In November 1981, NASA’s first space shuttle, Columbia, was on its second mission when it took images of a large area of the eastern Sahara using its Shuttle Imaging Radar system (SIR-A). Because the area was covered in exceptionally dry sand, which the SIR-A system was able to penetrate to a depth of almost 20 feet, the images that came back revealed the world beneath the sand— and those images stunned scientists around the world. Reason: they revealed the presence of major river systems, long since dried up— and that the famously barren region was once a lush, watery wilderness. The discovery of the ancient rivers, which researchers came to call the “Radar Rivers,” was of special interest to archaeologists because ancient civilizations settled near fresh water systems. Excavations at locations along the heretofore unknown rivers have since revealed hundreds of ancient human settlements, some dating back tens of thousands of years. Ancient tools, such as stone axes— some dating back hundreds of thousands of years— have been discovered along the rivers as well.


(Image credit: Pgbk87)

In the early 1980s, the husband-and-wife archaeology team of Arlen and Diane Chase started doing on-the-ground work at the ancient Mayan settlement of Caracol in Belize. In 2009 the Chases heard about LIDAR (an acronym for “light detection and ranging”) imaging technology. LIDAR uses lasers to develop extremely high-resolution, three-dimensional topographic maps of large swaths of land. The technology was of special interest to the Chases because it can “see” through dense vegetation, such as the jungle they had been fighting for more than two decades. In 2009 they arranged for a LIDAR-equipped two-engine plane to fly over the site. After just 24 hours of back-and-forth flying over the treetops, the system produced a map that told the Chases more about the site than they had learned in the previous 24 years. “I’m pretty sure we uttered some expletives,” Diane Chase told the BBC. The images revealed thousands of ancient structures that the Chases had no idea existed, as well as roads, waterways, and farmland. Without realizing it, the Chases had been studying the remains of an enormous Mayan city— roughly 80 square miles in size.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader. The 28th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts, and comes in both the Kindle version and paper with a classy cloth cover.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Aerial Archaeology"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More