Archaeology from Above

Revealing Jordan’s past through aerial photography

Qasr Bshir © APAAME_20211024_RHB-0060 photo by Robert Bewley

Qasr Bshir, one the best-preserved Roman buildings anywhere in the Roman Empire. Possibly a cavalry fort, from the late third century CE, and now in need of conservation, with the walls of the towers suffering collapse. © APAAME_20211024_RHB-0060 photo by Robert Bewley.

Since its launch in 1997, the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan (AAJ) project has aimed to use aerial reconnaissance and photography to discover previously unrecorded sites throughout Jordan. Now in its 26th season, the project’s goals have expanded to include monitoring already identified archaeological and cultural heritage sites that face growing threats from population expansion, development, and especially looting. The project records and monitors those sites under the greatest threat and then reports their condition to local authorities. Today, the AAJ project is part of the wider Aerial Archaeology in the Middle East project (AAME), which also covers other countries in the region, including Oman and Saudi Arabia. Nearly all of the project’s photography (more than 180,000 images) is publicly available through the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East, which is easily accessible through the project’s online Flickr site.

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The project records sites from all periods. The earliest are probably eighth or seventh millennium BCE prehistoric hunting sites, with associated walls and circular stone-built features. There are later settlements and burials from the Bronze and Iron Ages, as well as many different types of classical-period sites (e.g., cities, forts, and farmsteads), Islamic palaces and settlements, medieval castles (both Islamic and Crusader), and caravanserai and mosques associated with the ancient Hajj route. We also record the many deserted Ottoman villages throughout Jordan, as well as sites from the early 20th century, including the line of the Hejaz Railway and even trenches from the First World War and the Great Arab Revolt.

Safawi Kite 104. Copyright APAAME_20090928_RHB-0070 photo by Robert Bewley

A prehistoric hunting site or trap for gazelle and oryx, possibly over 8,000 years old, known as a “desert kite” (Safawi Kite 104). There are thousands of these types of sites in the region. © APAAME_20090928_RHB-0070 photo by Robert Bewley

Before we take to the air, we do an initial inspection of sites using publicly available satellite imagery, such as is available through Google Earth or Bing Maps. During our flights, which are typically in helicopters supplied by the Royal Jordanian Air Force, our main way of capturing data is through hand-held digital single lens reflect (DSLR) cameras. For each archaeological site, we orbit at least once to take as many photos as possible. We also collaborate with different authorities and scholars, mainly the Department of Antiquities of Jordan but also various universities and international research projects, to identify sites that have potential for future archaeological study. A recent example is our collaboration with Michael Fradley of the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa (EAMENA) project and the discovery of three Roman marching camps in Jordan’s southeastern desert that will be the focus of future excavation work.

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Each flying season usually lasts between two and four weeks, and we now often fly in November, which is the time of year that provides the best, low-angled natural light for photographing sites. Most sites are visible to the naked eye (as they are made of either stone or earth) and, as such, their features are enhanced by a lower, slanting light that casts shadows and makes their outline easier to discern from above.

Western Roman camp Wadi el Hasah. Photo by Firas Bqa’in

In 2022, several Roman camps were discovered using satellite imagery. We were able to photograph them from the air to confirm the interpretation of them being part of a Roman military expansion attempt. The most westerly of the camps is visible in the photo above.
© APAAME_20231112_FB-0310.jpg, photo by Firas Bqa’in.

As the project continues, we are now working to transfer its overall management and operation from Britain to Jordan. Jordanian archaeologist Firas Bqa’in became project co-director in 2022, and we have also initiated a program to train local archaeologists in pre-flight planning, “target selection,” in-flight photographic methods, and post-flight tasks. These include recording the flight’s GPS track log, downloading and cataloging images, and then making the photos available in the online digital archive. Each hour of flying can take most of a day to catalog, so a 20 to 30-hour flying season produces many weeks of follow-up work. Despite these changes, however, there will always be links to Britain and the University of Oxford, where the project’s physical photographic archive is housed.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the many organizations that have made the AAJ project possible, including the Augustus Foundation, the Packard Humanities Institute, Australian Research Council, the British Academy, the Palestine Exploration Fund, the Prehistoric Society, the Robert Kiln Charitable Trust, Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust, Society of Antiquaries of London, the University of Western Australia, Research Grants Fund, and private donations. The project has also benefitted from the wonderful support of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, the Royal Jordanian Air Force, and the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL).

Robert Bewley is Research Associate in the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford, and specializes in remote sensing using aerial and landscape archaeology. He has worked in Britain, Europe and was the director of the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project (from 2015–2020). His focus now is on the Aerial Archaeology in the Middle East project.

Firas Bqa’in is the co-director of the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan project and a team member of the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East project. He holds a B.A. in archaeology from the University of Mu’tah and an M.A. in archaeology from the University of Jordan. He is the Operations Manager for the Council for British Research in the Levant, Amman Institute.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:


Aerial Technology Directs Archaeologists to Idumean Structure

New Images from Khirbet Qeiyafa Excavations

Has Queen Nefertiti’s Tomb Been Located?


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