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Spy satellites reveal hundreds of Roman forts across Iraq and Syria

Artist's rendering of Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite. (DoD image by the Space and Missile Systems Center courtesy of the 50th Space Wing.)
October 27, 2023

 A series of declassified satellite images from the Cold War era have revealed hundreds of undiscovered Roman forts in Iraq and Syria.

A total of 396 new sites have been identified from the images taken in the 1960s and 1970s, with the findings, published in the journal Antiquity, changing the perception of how the region functioned.

A previous 1934 aerial survey, conducted by French explorer Antoine Poidebard, recorded 116 Roman forts across the region.

They were previously thought to form a defensive line against incursions from Arabia and Persia along the Roman Empire’s eastern flank.

The latest findings, however, suggest Rome’s borderlands were more fluid than previously thought, as the forts are arranged along what appear to be strategic routes running east to west. This is leading researchers to suggest each marks a stage along a road network, with the outposts supporting caravan-based trade and communication lines as well as serving military purposes.

The lead researcher into the new findings, Prof. Jesse Casana, wrote: “Since the 1930s, historians and archeologists have debated the strategic or political purpose of this system of fortifications. But few scholars have questioned Poidebard’s basic observation that there was a line of forts defining the eastern Roman frontier.”

The images were recorded as part of an early spy satellite program during the height of the Cold War, and have only now been declassified.

Casana said the pictures “preserve a high-resolution, stereo perspective on a landscape that has been severely impacted by modern-day land-use change.”

He added that the findings prove the value of using satellite imagery for archaeological work before prospective sites are lost.

The images studied formed part of the world’s first spy-satellite program conducted at the time of geopolitical tension between the US and Soviet Union and their allies, the western bloc and the eastern bloc.

“We were only able confidently to identify extant archeological remains of 38 of Poidebard’s 116 forts,” Casana said. “In addition, many of the likely Roman forts we have documented in this study have already been destroyed by recent urban or agricultural development, and countless others are under extreme threat.”

He added, though, that as more previously hidden data and images are declassified, there is hope more progress can be made in identifying sites. “Careful analysis of these powerful data holds enormous potential for future discoveries in the near east and beyond,” he said.


(c) 2023 the Arab News

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