washington — Satellite imagery is among the remote sensing technologies that are being used to aide archeologists who are trying to get a better understanding of the Middle East, both from an ancient and a modern perspective.
The Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes (CAMEL), part of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, is developing a data archive of satellite imagery, aerial photographs and maps of the Middle East.
The center’s work is focused on an area spanning north to south from the Black Sea to the horn of Africa and east to west from Greece to Afghanistan, said Scott Branting, director of CAMEL, in a phone interview Feb. 6.
CAMEL is studying the Middle East from a historical perspective, looking at such things as changes in landscape, but also studying aspects of today’s Middle East , Branting said. It is helpful for the center to look at imagery of the area from different parts of the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly because of the damage that has resulted from civil unrest, looting and other problems, Branting said.
The photographic record begins with aerial shots taken by the University of Chicago during the 1920s . To examine the Middle East, CAMEL researchers are using data from the Spot and Landsat satellites and high-resolution imagery from the QuickBird and Ikonos spacecraft.
To fill a gap in data from the the middle of the 20th century, CAMEL turned to declassified spy satellite imagery, primarily images captured by the Corona satellites. CAMEL obtained 360 images from the U.S. Geological Survey early on in its mission, and on Feb. 5 received a $24,000 grant from the women’s board of the University of Chicago to obtain 800 more images.
By c ombining all of this imagery, CAMEL is coming close to having complete coverage of its entire area of study, Branting said. A future goal for the project would be to have complete coverage using high-resolution satellite imagery alone, but that could prove to be too expensive an undertaking to be practical, Branting said.
CAMEL uses satellite and other forms of imagery to aid the process of archeological reconstruction where the researchers examine such things as an area’s geographic landscape, how settlements moved from place to place and how cities were constructed, Branting said.
The center currently is working on the reconstruction of an ancient city in Turkey, which Branting suspects is the city of Pteria, which existed around 500 B.C. and was mentioned in the writings of the ancient historian Herodotus.
In early February , the project also received an $80,000 grant from the Joint Theory Institute, a partnership between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., for a software project. Known as a pedestrian simulator, this software will take imagery and use it to create models that show how individuals walked from location to location during different time periods in the Middle East, Branting said.
McGuire Gibson, a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago, has relied on the CAMEL lab for a number of projects.
“What is beautiful about the old Corona imagery is when you’re looking at the landscape, you’re looking at the situation before so much was destroyed, or covered over by various kinds of development,” Gibson said.
Gibson has been working for the past few years on a project called Modeling Ancient Sumerian Society, which looks at the crops, rivers and movement patterns in that region, Gibson said. He has used CAMEL imagery to study the movement of water along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Gibson also is looking at modern imagery to determine how severely existing archeological sites are being destroyed today because of looting and other factors, he said.
CAMEL was founded in its current incarnation in 2004, though Middle Eastern study work using imagery was done at the university for years before that, Branting said. It has a staff of three supervisors and about 10 volunteers and students working in the lab. Its core operation is funded by the Oriental Institute, and it obtains the rest of its funding through individual grants, Branting said.
The center has been in talks with NASA to strike an official partnership as a data source, similar to the Servir joint venture project, headquartered at the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean in the Republic of Panama, which deals with satellite data in Mesoamerica and Central America, Branting said. CAMEL has a Space Act Agreement pending with NASA that would officially establish a relationship, but it has not yet been approved, he said.