Cold War spy photos help locate archaeological sites across the globe

Major grant to expand project that uses images from Corona military satellite system to pinpoint archaeological remains

Fayetteville, Arkansas

A $275,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will enable American academics to expand a mapping project, which uses Cold War-era spy satellite images to pinpoint archaeological sites, to include Western China, the Indus Valley, Africa, Eastern Europe and parts of Southeast Asia. A team from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville has already mapped sites in the Near East as part of its Corona Atlas Project. It is one of 205 humanities projects that recently received grants worth a total of $17.4m from the arm’s-length federal agency.

At the height of the Cold War in 1960, the US government launched Corona—one of the world’s first military spy satellite systems—with the aim of identifying military sites in political hotspots and in countries where relations with the US had soured, such as the then Soviet Union. More than 800,000 high-resolution photographs were collected during the programme’s 12-year run. The images were later declassified by President Bill Clinton, partly thanks to lobbying by Robert McCormick Adams, an archaeologist and then the secretary of the Smithsonian. “These images were, in a way, declassified specifically [so they could be used by] archaeologists,” says Jesse Casana, an archaeologist and the director of the Corona Atlas Project. He says there is a big selection of photos from non-Nato countries. “It’s spy satellite imagery, so the more volatile the country, the more images there are,” he says. The government is in the process of declassifying photographs taken on missions that operated as late as 1986.

Spatial awareness

Casana, who often works in the Middle East, has used images from Corona to map sites since the mid-1990s. “Archaeologists working in the [region] jumped on the Corona bandwagon pretty early,” he says, explaining that there is a long history of the use of aerial images by those working in the Middle East. Although Corona’s images are a valuable resource—they provide a historic record of the earth’s topography in the 1960s, before many of the major development projects began—the images are distorted and therefore difficult to use. “The images were collected using a panoramic camera designed to capture huge areas at a high spatial resolution, but at the sacrifice of the distortion of the image spatially,” he says, explaining that landscape features are stretched, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact location of sites.

Five years ago, Casana and his team began work on a project to correct these images and post them online so they can be downloaded by scholars for free (the images are distributed by the United States Geological Survey, which charges $30 to scan each image). “Corona should be a right, not a privilege,” he says, adding: “The idea of the initial project was to make it easy for non-specialists to take advantage of Corona.”

The online database contains around 1,600 images, covering most countries in the Middle East. The latest grant will enable Casana and his team to expand the project into China, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Indus Valley, which the archaeologist describes as “areas that have undergone rapid development and where I feel Corona will be most useful”. He estimates that a further 3,500 images will be available online within the next three years.