The view from afar – Remote archaeology in the sands of the Registan, Afghanistan

A Google Earth screenshot of a centuries old Ghaznavid fortress in the Afghan desert.

For over a century, archaeologists have valued the 'view from afar', primarily in the form of photographs taken from aeroplanes, home-made kites and rickety ladders propped precariously against 4WDs. Even a small amount of vertical perspective, and early morning dew and shadows, can reveal wall-lines, ditches, pits and long-disused routes between ancient towns that are otherwise difficult to discern on the ground. More recently, declassified Cold War spy satellite images have provided an invaluable archive record of landscapes transformed by just a few decades of urban and agricultural expansion.

The launch of the 'virtual globe' Google Earth (see Google Earth) in 2005 made high resolution satellite images of selected parts of the world freely available. A vibrant community of 'Google Earthers' (for example: see here) has since developed, sharing 'placemarks' of spectacular erupting volcanoes, prisons of concern to human rights organizations and supposed evidence of aliens, as well as archaeological sites. Few archaeological researchers, however, have attempted to use Google Earth as a source of data, rather than just pretty pictures.

The Archaeological Sites of Afghanistan in Google Earth (ASAGE) project is a collaborative effort using Google Earth images to study archaeological sites across Afghanistan. Our initial focus was on the 45 known medieval sites which fall within high resolution Google Earth images of Afghanistan. Only eight of these sites have even basic plans, so we have used the Google Earth images to draw detailed sketch plans and to record and describe standing structures. At sites such as Bust / Lashkari Bazaar, the Ghaznavid (996-1160 CE) winter capital, our detailed study of the Google Earth images has added new insights to the plans published following a French expedition’s work at the site from 1949-52. A poster outlining this aspect of our research was recently presented at the World Archaeology Congress in Dublin (the poster is available here).

Important as this work is, it is our ‘virtual’ exploration of part of the Registan desert which has captured the media’s attention (see a 21 July 2008 article from the Sydney Morning Herald here). We selected the Registan because of its proximity to Bust, and because the visibility in this arid region is excellent due to the limited vegetation cover and low level of human activity. Hours of scrolling through images covering 1,367 square km, and subsequent site descriptions and cataloguing, has resulted in the identification of over 450 probable and possible archaeological sites in an area where there was previously just one confirmed archaeological site. The newly identified sites include isolated nomad campsites and corrals, fortified dwellings and mounds, deserted villages clustered around small mosques, dams and reservoirs and kilometres of subterranean water channels. Although it will probably be years before the security situation improves sufficiently for us to visit these sites, the study of Google Earth images is starting to fill in some of the blanks on the archaeological map of Afghanistan.

The ASAGE project team consists of the author, David Thomas, (e-mail: ), Claudia Zipfel and Suzanna Nikolovski (all of La Trobe University) and Dr Fiona Kidd, University of Sydney. Our research has been funded by a generous grant (to Dr Alison Gascoigne, see the Minaret of Jam Archaeological Project here) from the Cary Robertson Fund, Trinity College, Cambridge.

-David Thomas

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