Spying on the Past: Declassified Satellite Images and Archaeology

Nemrut Crater, USGS photo
This crater at Nemrut is the summer pasture of Kurdish nomads who move down into the Tigris valley during the winter. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1969.

Archaeologists are known for examining the minutiae of their sites, avidly digging and scrubbing away at tiny artifacts to glean information about ancient cultures. Sometimes, though, it helps to step back to get the big picture.

Since World War I, archaeologists have been using aerial views to get a broader perspective on research sites. Ancient habitation sites are revealed to be only one component of the landscape, alongside roads, tracks, canals, and fields.

This exhibition, curated by Harvard University students, faculty, and staff, explores the uses of aerial and satellite imaging not only to examine ancient cities in the Middle East and South America, but also to view these sites in context, as systems or landscapes, in relation to other sites nearby. These images reveal the extent of Assyrian imperial irrigation in Iraq, forty-five-hundred-year-old track networks in northeastern Syria, and the transient passages of nomadic herders in Iran and Turkey.

A comparison of aerial and satellite images of these sites, and especially at Chan Chan in Peru, shows how drastically such landscapes can and do change over time.

Curated by students of Anthropology 97x, Sophomore Tutorial in Archaeology and graduate student, Adam Stack, with Associate Professor of Anthropology Jason Ur and Associate Curator of Visual Anthropology Ilisa Barbash.