Roman Empire forts in Cold War imagery topple north-south axis theory

Archaeologists and anthropologists have identified 396 previously undocumented Roman forts after scouring Cold War era satellite images of the Middle East.

Analysis by the researchers from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the US, reveals hundreds of Roman forts constructed east to west across an area between Aleppo in western Syria through to Mosul in northern Iraq. Their findings are published in Antiquity.

During the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of intelligence images were captured by CORONA and HEXAGON satellites. Taken between 1960 and 1986, the images include high-resolution vision of most of the Earth’s surface, with a particular emphasis on Soviet bloc countries. 

In recent decades, this large cache of data has been declassified, and made available for research and public access through the open-access CORONA Atlas Project.

Fig 3 sura resafa ain sinu v2 5feb231
CORONA images showing major sites: A) Sura (NASA1401); B) Resafa (NASA1398); and C) Ain Sinu (CRN999) / Credit: J.Casana et al.; CORONA imagery courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

The Dartmouth researchers examined a selection of satellite images covering about 300,000 square kilometres, focusing on an archaeologically significant area known as the northern Fertile Crescent. They mapped both previously identified and undiscovered sites.

Roman forts in the region were originally mapped by Father Antoine Poidebard in the 1920s, who conducted one of the world’s first aerial archaeological surveys by biplane.

The structures form distinctive 50-by-80-metre rectangles in the landscape. They were large enough to accommodate soldiers, horses or camels and were likely used to support the movement of troops, supplies, and trade goods across the region.

While many of the forts identified by Poidebard have since been destroyed or obscured by changes in land use, the Dartmouth researchers were able to identify 38 of the original 116 identified by Poidebard, along with a further 396 Roman forts. 

Fort locator map for dartmouth 27oct231
Distribution maps of forts documented by (top) Poidebard (1934), compared to (bottom) distribution of forts found on satellite imagery / Credit: figure by J.Casana et al, created using ArcGIS Pro version 3.0.

Some of these newly identified sites include larger fortifications with walls up to 200m long. According to the paper, recent excavations suggest the sites were mostly constructed and used between the second and sixth centuries AD.

The distribution of newly identified Roman forts contradicts the Poidebard’s assertion that forts in the region were constructed along a north-south axis, forming an eastern boundary to the Roman Empire.

Archaeologist and professor Jesse Casana, director of the Spatial Archaeometry Lab at Dartmouth and author of the paper, says: “I was surprised to find that there were so many forts and that they were distributed in this way [east to west] because the conventional wisdom was that these forts formed the border between Rome and its enemies in the east, Persia or Arab armies.” 

“While there’s been a lot of historical debate about this, it had been mostly assumed that this distribution was real, that Poidebard’s map showed that the forts were demarcating the border and served to prevent movement across it in some way,” he says. 

Casana says the findings are likely are just a fraction of what probably existed in the past.

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