A mysterious building more than twice the length of a tennis court and six times as wide has been “hiding in plain sight” at Petra in modern Jordan, say researchers Sarah Parcak and Christopher A. Tuttle. In a new study published in the archaeology journal Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR), Parcak and Tuttle describe the discovery and mapping of the new Petra monument using Google Earth, satellite imagery, ground survey and drones.
Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and winner of the 2016 TED Prize, and Tuttle, Executive Director of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, tout the promise of ever-advancing technology in furthering archaeological research in their paper:
“New satellite sensors and remote sensing technologies are transforming our understanding of ancient landscapes and archaeological sites across the globe,” write Parcak and Tuttle. “Most importantly, they are allowing archaeologists to ask better questions about past human–environment interactions and to see landscapes and sites as integrated rather than separate.”
Many people have heard of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra—or have been among the half a million who visit the ancient ruins each year. Nineteenth-century English poet John Burgon memorialized Petra as “a rose-red city half as old as time.” Well-positioned between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, the Nabataean caravan-city flourished beginning in the first century B.C.E. thanks to the spice trade and served as a crossroads where Arabian and Hellenistic influences intermingled. Petra is famous for its Roman-period rock-cut monuments that line the city center. Just half a mile southwest of these rose-colored sandstone structures, however, lie the remains of buildings that were previously unknown to researchers—until now.
Among the structures recently identified by Sarah Parcak and Christopher Tuttle, the most prominent consists of a large rectangular platform measuring c. 184 x 161 feet, on which sat another platform measuring c. 151 x 146 feet. This building once had a monumental stairway leading up to the smaller platform, at the top of which stood sandstone columns. Parcak and Tuttle observed, curiously, that the new Petra monument as it is oriented has visible relationships with several important structures in the vicinity: to the east, two shrines—Jabal al-Madhbah (“High Place of Sacrifice”) and Jabal an-Nmayr; to the northwest, the high flat-topped mountain of Umm al-Biyara; and to the north, the ez-Zantur IV villa. Parcak and Tuttle believe that it’s “highly likely” this building was once used in a ceremonial capacity and could date as early as the second century B.C.E.
“Further investigation of this site would provide some valuable information for our understanding of Nabataean public ceremonial areas, a topic on which new research is beginning to emerge,” write Parcak and Tuttle in their report.
Parcak and Tuttle emphasize that much remains to be uncovered around the rose-red city:
“Most who visit this World Heritage site see but a tiny fraction of the total landscapes … in and around the city. … Given the complexities of the topography found in this extensive park, it is highly improbable that Petra has yet revealed all of its secrets.”
The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) has made Sarah Parcak and Christopher Tuttle’s article, “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Discovery of a New Monumental Structure at Petra, Jordan, Using WorldView-1 and WorldView-2 Satellite Imagery” (May 2016), available to read in full with free registration. Click here to read the article.
The Biblical Archaeology Society invites you on an extraordinary journey to Jordan and Israel, two of the world’s most sacred lands, this fall. Among the many adventures you will have, spend a full day touring Petra! Click here to learn more >>
Site-Seeing: Petra’s Temple of the Winged Lions by Glenn J. Corbett
Solving the Enigma of Petra and the Nabataeans by Glenn J. Corbett
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.