Jordan's airborne monuments men discover, protect sites
The helicopter door opens and Robert Bewley leans out hundreds of feet above the Hisban Roman ruins outside Amman, Jordan. Feet on the struts, the Oxford University archaeologist begins snapping photos as the chopper circles the ancient stones.
"To discover sites if we were just out on the ground would be really difficult," Bewley said. "In an hour's flying we can record between 10-20 sites and once they're recorded through digital photography, that's a record that will last forever."
While Roman, Ottoman, Byzantine, Nabatean, Neolithic and British imperial sites have been uncovered, the pair has also revealed in the past 19 years both mysterious man-made rock structures and "catastrophic" urban sprawl destroying and threatening sites across the kingdom.
"I could see the archaeology was disappearing, and one of the things that's been quite shocking since then is to see that the process is accelerating," he said. "It's now at an almost catastrophic level."
Destruction of antiquities is clear from the air, but so are thousands of enormous man-made rock structures once known as "the works of the old men" in Jordan's bleak basalt desert.
"For all practical purposes they saw nothing," he said.
"Just by going up a few hundred feet, we could see that there were literally thousands of kites there," Kennedy said.
"My god it was just amazing what you cannot see on the ground," said Gary Rollefson, a professor emeritus at Whitman College who has worked in Jordan since 1978. "We could tell there were some humps over there, but the distribution or density of these things was just overwhelming."
Rollefson has found oak, duckweed, cattails and tamarisk pollen in red mud at a Neolithic site called Wisad Pools. Other archaeologists have found animal bones. The discoveries have led archaeologists to reach a consensus, he said.
The evidence suggests the kites were massive hunting traps used to corral wild game in a much greener environment. People would drive herds between stone walls that would slowly narrow the running animals into dead-end pits six-feet deep.
At first Kennedy wasn't allowed to fly when he began the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East in 1978 under the patronage of Prince Hassan and advice from Glubb Pasha, the famous British leader of the Arab Legion. Kennedy spent 25 years collecting aerial photos and old maps before Google Earth made satellite images widespread.
Bewley said the aerial perspective, even in an age of Google Earth, can inform and lead to new discoveries.
Hi-resolution photos and GPS coordinates enable Zerbini to identify quarries, wine presses, reservoirs, and tombs.
Kennedy and Bewley moved their database to Oxford where it supports the larger region-wide Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project. With new funding from the Augustus Foundation, the team Kennedy and Bewley lead aims to expand the scope of historic and contemporary images -- and keep flying.
Over 7 million people have viewed the archive online -- which has more than 1,000 pages of photos -- and 161 research projects have used the images, Bewley said.
"We don't want them to be just sitting in an archive, so it's an online database of photographs that people can look at and be able to do their research on," he said. "The purpose of taking the photographs is that people will use them in the future."
Author: Sam Mcneil | Source: The Associated Press [October 12, 2016]