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Ancient sites spotted from space, say archaeologists

BBC Mobile – NEWS Science & Environment – 20 March 2012.

This mound in Syria was formed as generations built and rebuilt mud-brick homes on the same spot
This mound in Syria was formed as generations built and rebuilt mud-brick homes on the same spot

Thousands of possible early human settlements have been discovered by archaeologists using computers to scour satellite images.

Jason Ur said he had found about 9,000 potential new sites in north-eastern Syria.

Computers scanned the images for soil discoloration and mounds caused when mud-brick settlements collapsed.

Dr. Ur said surveying the same area on the ground would have taken him a lifetime.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researcher told BBC News: “With these computer science techniques, however, we can immediately come up with an enormous map which is methodologically very interesting, but which also shows the staggering amount of human occupation over the last 7,000 or 8,000 years.

“What’s more, anyone who comes back to this area for any future survey would already know where to go.

“There’s no need to do this sort of initial reconnaissance to find sites. This allows you to do targeted work, so it maximizes the time we have on the ground.”

Iraqi heritage sites

In the past, Dr Ur used declassified spy satellite photographs and the human eye to try to identify potential sites.

But over the last three years, he has worked with computer expert Bjoern Menze, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to create a software application able to classify a huge range of terrain.

He said this had removed subjectivity and allowed them to look at a much larger area.

In all, about 9,000 possible settlements were identified across 23,000 sq km.

Ideally, he said, some of these would be excavated, but the volatile political situation in Syria had forced them to put any ground searches on hold.

However, he did tell the BBC that he hoped to conduct further research in the Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq, and follow that up with excavations that would be “a very rigorous testing of the model”.

Archaeological work in Iraq has not been popular in the past, but Dr Ur feels the time is right to identify heritage sites of importance and ensure they are not lost as the country presses on with widespread development of its towns and cities.