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Volume 51, Number 3May/June 2000

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Ancient Jordan from the Air

Written and photographed by David L. Kennedy

Along with Britain, the Middle East is one of the two parts of the world where aerial archeology was pioneered in the early 20th century.

During World War I, British, French and especially German pilots took hundreds of photographs of the region from the air; many were of archeological sites. Over the next two decades, Syria was extensively photographed from above, thanks to the efforts of Père Antoine Poidebard. In the adjacent British mandates of Iraq and Transjordan, Poidebard's counterpart was Sir Aurel Stein, whom the Royal Air Force flew there in 1938 and 1939. But since that time, there has been no systematic aerial archaeology in the region.

Had it been otherwise, what might have been achieved by now can be inferred both from the hundreds of thousands of sites discovered from the air in northwestern Europe in this century, and by the brilliantly evocative images in Poidebard's 1934 book, La trace de Rome dans le désert de Syrie. As the early fliers knew well, it is discovery that is the first and often most thrilling goal of aerial archeology: Subtle features that might or might not be noticeable on the ground, or that might not be recognized as archeological, often stand out clearly when viewed from the air. In certain conditions, even features totally buried may be revealed by the different color or density of the vegetation above them.

The potential for aerial archeological discovery in the Middle East is at least as great as it is in Europe. For example, a set of photographs of western Jordan, taken for mapping purposes in 1953 at the rather unsuitable scale of 1 to 25,000, have through careful recent interpretation nevertheless revealed no fewer than 25,000 sites in that region alone—almost three times the number listed in Jordan's present archeological database.

But discovery is only the beginning. Aerial views provide a simple method of mapping both individual sites and the ancient features in an entire landscape. They also invite interpretation, for structures can be understood within the layout of whole sites, and those sites within their larger contexts of landscape and resources.

Since 1978, with the establishment of the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archeology in the Middle East, under royal patronage, and with additional support from the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Australian Research Council, Jordan has revived aerial archeology, and the expected exciting results are beginning to emerge. Over two decades, some 8000 photographs, and several hundred maps, have been compiled. Since 1998, the Royal Jordanian Air Force has supported explicitly archeological flying, which has added several thousand more photographs.

Illustrated here are a few highlights, from the famous and well-preserved to the relatively obscure, of what is becoming a major resource for tapping Jordan's vast archeological heritage. This portfolio could be multiplied several times over with ease, and of course the same process could be repeated fruitfully in every country of the region.

David L. Kennedy is professor of ancient history and classical archeology at the University of Western Australia in Perth. He has been involved in aerial archeology in the Middle East for over 20 years, having learned the techniques at the side of one of the pioneers, Derrick Riley, flying over the rather different landscape of Yorkshire.

This article appeared on pages 36-46 of the May/June 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 2000 images.