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U2 Spy Plane Photos Reveal New Archaeological Findings

The U2 spy planes were used by the United States during the Cold War, flying over 70,000 feet over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. On May 1, 1960, the Soviet Union shot down American pilot Francis Gary Powers, leading the U2 spy program to a famous and public end.

Prior to these events, however, American pilots had flown dozens of missions to collect detailed photographic documentation of the terrain, which are invaluable to archaeologists working in the Middle East today.

In a new open-access paper published in Advances in Archaeological Practice, Emily Hammer and Jason Ur detail their latest efforts to both make the data from these U2 flights accessible to the public and to demonstrate their importance to ongoing research projects in the Middle East. Aerial imagery is useful in archaeology for identifying features that can be difficult to see at ground level. In this study, the U2 images have also helped Hammer and Ur to identify archaeological sites that have been damaged or destroyed over the past 60 years.

In the above picture, for example, the authors identified the remains of two canals, one of which appears to have been built by the Assyrian Empire more than 3,000 years ago. In the intervening decades since the U2 image was taken, the modern Iraqi town of Khabat has spread to cover the canal, making the canal virtually invisible in modern aerial images.

Aside from being able to identify two canals, the authors were also able to create “the first systematic description of how water reached the ancient city” as well as have a documentation of older structures known as “desert kites.” They are expecting to make use of the images to aid historical and archaeological studies of settlement sites and landscapes in Eurasia.

Image Credit: National Archives and Records Administration/Compilation by Hammer and Ur


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