Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of ancient Roman forts in Syria that “fundamentally challenge understandings” of the contours of the Roman empire, they say in a new study. The archeologists made the discovery while analyzing recently-declassified Cold War spy satellite observations that have become critical to such research in recent years.
A century ago, a Jesuit priest and WWI pilot named Father Antoine Poidebard undertook one of the earliest-known aerial archaeological surveys. Flying over Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, Poidebard mapped hundreds of undiscovered Roman forts that researchers have since believed to be the Eastern frontier of the ancient empire.
Now, researchers Jesse Casana, David Goodman, and Carolin Ferwerda from Dartmouth College have analyzed declassified footage from the U.S.’s CORONA (1960-1972) and HEXAGON (1970-1986) spy satellite programs that they say redraws and expands the edges of the Roman empire in the same region Poidebard surveyed.
As the researchers explain in their study, published on Thursday in the peer-reviewed archaeological journal Antiquity, they found 396 undocumented forts or fort-like buildings in the area stretching from western Syria to northwestern Iraq. They report that Poidebard found 116 forts in the same area, making their contribution significant. The authors also claim that Poidebard’s theory that the Roman Empire maintained a line of defence in the area along a north-south axis is contradicted by the location of the forts.
“Instead, we show that the forts form a roughly east-west line following the margins of the inland desert, connecting Mosul on the Tigris River in the east with Aleppo in western Syria,” the study authors wrote.
Cold War spy satellite images have become an invaluable resource for archaeologists over the past few years. Another team of researchers said in a 2022 Antiquity paper that CORONA satellite images had become “an integral part of archeological research” over the last 25 years, particularly in “sparsely vegetated regions” like the Middle East. Imagery from CORONA’s successor program, HEXAGON, was declassified more recently, in 2020, and has quickly become just as important as CORONA’s imagery was to researchers.
Indeed, the authors of the latest study noted that they published an earlier survey solely relying on CORONA imagery, but that HEXAGON’s trove “provides higher resolution data.”
The researchers report that the scale of the new forts they discovered were in some cases stunningly large with sides as long as 200 meters. The researchers wrote that “many of these large sites contain extensive remains of architectural features around or inside the fortifications. Multiple fortified building or large citadels are also included.”
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