Using satellite imagery to uncover Afghanistan’s lost settlements
In Afghanistan, persistent civil war and the presence of militarized extremist groups means geographic fieldwork of any kind can be dangerous and difficult, especially for western researchers. Science reports Afghan and American archaeologists from the University of Chicago are bypassing danger by using commercial and federal satellite data and drone imagery supplied by the U.S. State Department. The archeologists are combing industry of Afghanistan’s sprawling southern deserts in an effort to identify ancient Silk Road routes and to help preserve Afghan cultural heritage.
Among the most striking discoveries is a series of 119 enormous “caravanserai,” or mud-brick complexes built to provide shelter to traders and merchants (and their livestock) arriving with spices from India or porcelain and fish from China. These structures appear roughly every 20 kilometers, marking each day’s travel between Isfahan, the former capital of the Safavid Dynasty (now Iran), and the powerful Mughal Empire that dominated much of the Indian subcontinent in the 16 and 17th centuries.
Near the Balkh Oasis in North Afghanistan, the researchers used high-resolution imagery to detect slight topographic changes that revealed the existence of hundreds of settlements built along the Balkhab River. The team has discovered 1,000 colonies, suggesting the region was more densely populated than previously thought. The geographic orientation of these settlements and the caravanserai will help outline the true nervous system of the Silk Roads.
The satellite data also revealed canal networks that likely fueled agriculture for thousands of years, as well as a diverse array of religious temples.
These discoveries will help such sites be properly protected and preserved to canonize the region’s history. To eliminate the risk of their destruction during infrastructural development and mining, the University of Chicago team is overseeing construction of a central GIS for the Afghan Institute of Archaeology in Kabul and Kabul Polytechnic University. The system will focus on site management and could guide future expeditions.
Photo Credit: DigitalGlobe