In DepthArchaeology

Satellites trace Afghanistan's lost empires

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Science  15 Dec 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6369, pp. 1364-1365
DOI: 10.1126/science.358.6369.1364

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Summary

For archaeologists, Afghanistan is virtually off-limits for fieldwork, as Taliban forces battle the Kabul government. Yet U.S. and Afghan researchers are now finding thousands of never-before-cataloged ancient sites in the country, which for more than a millennium served as a crucial crossroads linking East and West. The discoveries promise to expand scholars' view of long-vanished empires while giving the battered nation a desperately needed chance to protect its trove of cultural heritage. In a collaboration funded by the U.S. Department of State, archaeologists are analyzing commercial satellite data along with U.S. spy satellite and military drone images, which offer a fine-grained view of remote sites that are too dangerous for researchers to visit. At a meeting in Boston last month of the American Schools of Oriental Research, team members said they have more than tripled the number of published archaeological features in the country, to more than 4500. The discoveries range from caravanserais, huge complexes designed to house travelers and built from the early centuries B.C.E. until the 19th century, to networks of ancient canals invisible from the ground. Meanwhile, octogenarian archaeologists are emerging from retirement to add information from decades-old fieldwork to the site inventory.