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A direct product of the U-2 spyplane, itself a modified F-104 starfighter fashioned with extra long wings to carry it to the upper reaches of the atmsophere, once classified extremely high resolution photos taken by the jet have been found to be a treasure trove of the unlikeliest sort. Records of archaeological ruins long since altered or plowed over in the middle east. Shot onto a special chemical film from am elevation of 70,000 feet these images make google earth look grainy and out of focus.

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For millennia, people known as the Marsh Arabs lived in wetland oases fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq. But as those marshes became a hotbed of rebellion in the early 1990s, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein systematically drained them—driving out the people and drying up an ancient way of life. It’s hard to know exactly how many were displaced, but a new study, first reported in Secrecy News, reveals a tool archaeologists and anthropologists can use to find out: declassified Cold War–era images snapped by U.S. Lockheed U-2 spy planes. The high-resolution photos could prove a boon for reconstructing sites destroyed by development and war in recent decades.

Investigating lost historical sites and artifacts is a major challenge for archaeologists, says Emily Hammer, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author on the new study. In northern Iraq, for example, an ancient canal system in the Neo-Assyrian capital of Nimrud has been paved over by roads and topped with housing projects. In recent years, the Islamic State group gutted archaeologically important Iraqi sites in Mosul and Raqqa and Syrian sites in Aleppo and Palmyra. “Older images are much better, because archaeology is in many ways a race against time,” Hammer says.

To read more on Science Mag:

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