Cold War spy plane images illustrate human development—and destruction

How one archeologist is using Cold War spy plane images to study how land use has changed in Iraq.

U-2 images from the 1950s invaluable to archeologists

Desert kites in Iraq, used thousands of years ago to trap gazelles, photographed by U2 spy planes. The features have been destroyed by development and agriculture since the Cold War images were taken. (Courtesy Emily Hammer)

Landscape archeologists studying Mesopotamian history have found an unlikely resource for their research: formerly top-secret U-2 spy plane images.

The infamous jets, which flew at very high altitudes to evade Soviet defenses during the Cold War, took thousands of high-resolution photographs of numerous locations around the world.

Many of the images, taken during the 1950s and 1960s, have been recently declassified, said Emily Hammer, an assistant professor and landscape archeologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Emily Hammer (UPenn)

Hammer recently returned from three months of field work in Iraq. She said the images have been very helpful in her research.

She recently co-authored a paper on how she accessed the images and indexed them in a way that other researchers could find them.

Hammer told Spark host Nora Young that the five-decade-old images are important in particular because the pace of human development—and corresponding destruction of archeological landmarks—has advanced dramatically in that time.

The U-2 spy planes flew missions all over the world, she explained, but particularly over the Middle East, Asia and the former Soviet Union. "And they just happen to captured these historical and archeological places in between," she said.

Included in the images from the Cold War are those of desert kites: giant, ancient traps set to capture gazelles and other large mammals, she said. In recent decades, agriculture and urban development have obscured them.

The images also reveal the extent of marshlands in southern Iraq, before they were drained for development by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, she said.

She says she hopes her research helps other find sites and archeological data that have since been destroyed.

"Archeology is a race against time," Hammer said. "Agriculture and earth-working activities are just occurring on a scale now, and over the last decades, that they didn't occur in the past."


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