Monday, July 21, 2014

Research: The first Kites

In 2012, David Kennedy’s ‘Pioneers above Jordan’ article acknowledged the contribution to aerial archaeology by Royal Air Force pilots flying on the Cairo-Baghdad Airmail Route. The individuals who published the first photographs of a site they had termed ‘Kites’ were Percy Eric Maitland (1895-1985), Lionel Wilmont Brabazon Rees (1884-1955) and Gilbert Stuart Martin Insall (1894-1972).
Maitland 1927 The 'Works of the Old Men' in Arabia, Antiquity 1 (2): plate III.
Maitland’s article in the second issue of the new Journal Antiquity introduced the wider world to the concept of the ‘Works of the Old Men’ using aerial photographs taken by the RAF during passes of the Cairo-Baghdad air mail route. On Plate III a most striking Kite is presented as ‘Walls and Fort in Basalt Country’ – this has been located as ‘Wisad Kite 40’ at 31°52'43.54"N, 37°55'59.01"E and can be clearly seen on Bing Maps despite the encroaching sands over the low basalt walls of the Kite. From the collection of aerial photographs taken back to the UK by O.G.S. Crawford (now housed in UCL Special Collections for the Institute of Archaeology) we know this photograph is actually a mosaic of a series of vertical photographs taken over the kite.
Wisad Wall Tangle 2
Wisad Wall Tangle 2: APAAME_20091004_DLK-0045. Photographer: David Kennedy.
The other photograph on the plate, ‘Walls and Enclosures in Basalt Country’ may picture part of a kite amongst a tangle of walls – but the complex is now interrupted by a road and the El-Wisad Desert Patrol Post so we cannot quite clarify what the principle structure may once have been. We have identified the site as ‘Wisad Wall Tangle 2’: 31°53'6.82"N, 37°57'17.33"E.

Rees published photographs and images of a few Kites in his article ‘The Transjordan Desert’, also in Antiquity, but later in 1929. In ‘Circles Etc. in the Basalt Country South-West of Azrak’ on Plate III you can see the kite located at 31°47'54.56"N, 36°43'15.56"E, which we have photographed as ‘Amra Kite 4’.
Rees 1929 The Transjordan Desert, Antiquity 3 (12): plate IV.
On Plate IV he shows a photograph of ‘Kites south of Kasr Azrak’ which is a well defined chain of Kites at 31°51'51.57"N, 36°48'46.89"E with Azraq Kite 46 the most prominent in the photograph, but today the Kites are almost destroyed beneath increased farming and development around Azraq.
Azraq Kite 46 (Rees A)
Azraq Kite 46 in 2012 with a newly planted olive grove across the site. APAAME_20120522_DLK-0607. Photographer: David Kennedy.
In Plate VI he identifies a ‘Large Round Enclosure’ and two Kites on the photograph ‘Kazr Azrak and Surroundings’ but the ‘Large Round Enclosure’ is now entirely buried beneath the modern town (see Kennedy’s Big Circles article for information regarding this kind of feature), and one Kite, approximately 31°53'29.01"N, 36°50'5.39"E, is buried beneath the modern road, but the other is visible still at 31°53'39.43"N, 36°49'46.18"E. The photograph of ‘“Tell A”, near Landing-ground E’ on plate IX identifies several kites in the vicinity of the basalt mesa which can still be clearly seen from the air at 31°48'18.46"N, 37°25'59.97"E, and have been photographed and visited by the project several times.
Original RAF image from Insall (1929 The Aeroplane in Archaeology, Journal of the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell 9.2: between pages 174-175) juxtaposed with the modern imagery from Google Earth. Composed by Travis Hearn.
Also published in 1929 but less well known was Insall’s ‘The Aeroplane in Archaeology’ in the Journal of the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell (9.2: 174-175). The well defined kite with three tails he published eluded us for quite some time, but a review of the basalt region recently conducted identified the Kite at 31°47'51.06"N, 37°33'46.61"E alongside another Kite. Crossing the tails in the background can be seen the old bulldozed track laid out through the desert by the ground parties creating the new airmail route that acted as a guide for the pilots. More prominent now in the satellite imagery is a track bulldozed through the head.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Research: Remote Sensing, Kites and Agriculture

This blog was originally posted as part of the 'Day of Archaeology' 2014 (11 July 2014). You can find all posts, and information, on their website:

Safawi Kite 99, Safawi Kite 100
The well defined walls of kites on the Jordanian harra - Safawi Kites 99 & 100. APAAME_20081102_KHNQ-0386.
As you may have gathered from the many photographs we have taken in the Jordanian harra (see our Flickr archive), Kites in Jordan are found predominantly on the basalt lavafield. Due to the sharp contrast between the black rock and yellow sands these are often easily discernible in good resolution satellite imagery and even more so in the course of aerial photography conducted each year by the Aerial Archaeology in Jordan project (AAJ). Due to improved availability of good resolution satellite imagery over the Jordanian harra I recently embarked on a review of known features over the landscape in preparation for our upcoming field season in October. Due to the reasons mentioned, the majority of the harra was scrolled over relatively easily on my desktop, but it was not all a walk in the park.

The north western section of the harra was altogether more difficult to review. Our knowledge of site distribution in this area began with those traced on the 1:50,000 K737 maps. This was improved upon through an analysis of the Hunting Aerial Survey photographs undertaken by Prof. David Kennedy in the RSAME project where the information gathered from the aerial survey photographs were transcribed onto acetate copies of the 1:50,000 map sheets. Many of these sites were reviewed through ground survey conducted in the Southern Hauran Survey Project (SHS) in the late 80s and into the 90s, and included a few Kites, and AAJ, beginning in 1997, has also flown over and documented many sites in the region.

Google Earth (GE) has allowed us to utilise an affordable platform through which to easily review sites identified and photographed by the project, as well as investigate new sites for future research and documentation. In its early years the remote areas of Jordan were not a particularly high priority for high resolution imagery however, and many site locations were transferred into GE based on what was originally mapped in the earlier surveys mentioned, or locations estimated from the flight track log of AAJ aerial reconnaissance. These sites were therefore in need of the review I was conducting in order to increase the accuracy of the site location we had recorded, but also to verify whether the site first identified from earlier surveys was indeed correct.

The four map squares in question - Quttein, Hibabiya, Hallabat and Jimal are now in high resolution in GE - a victory you would think that would make life easier, but no. Here the basalt is no longer a deep dark black that contrasts easily for identification, but its age has bleached it and in some cases developed a patina over the surface so that it resembles the colour of the landscape around it. Take satellite imagery in the middle of the day and what you have is a bleached out landscape where you are lucky to identify anything at all. Moreover - this area is increasingly being utilised for agriculture and many sites identified from imagery taken in 1953 are now underneath fields of green. My standard approach of panning back and forth in GE and verifying against our aerial imagery and contrasting to Bing Maps was just not going to cut it today.
Hibabiya Kite 18
The faint trace of Hibabiya Kite 18 on an oblique aerial photograph. APAAME_20090917_DLK-0749.
Thanks to the laborious work of Research Assistants before me, we have created an overlay in GE of the distribution of all of the Hunting Aerial Survey (HAS) photographs. Using this overlay I was able to go from site to site we had identified and pinned in Google Earth and contrast it to what I could see in the HAS imagery and had been noted on the K737 acetates. Kites were by far the most numerous feature in this landscape on the fertile edge of the harra.

An important lesson was the fact that often some Kites visible on the satellite imagery were in no way or barely visible on the older HAS imagery, and some were visible on neither but clearly visible on the low oblique imagery of the AAJ project. As much as satellite imagery is an easy and resourceful tool, it definitely can not stand alone. Interestingly - and not something we come across often in Jordan, some of the historical GE satellite imagery showed up Kites easily identifiable on the HAS imagery as crop marks in the now fielded landscape. These would not have been so readily identified without the HAS imagery showing us where to look, but it is an important reminder that remote sensing techniques such as identifying crop marks that are applied in more lush landscapes may also be applied in Jordan at the right time of year, especially in agricultural landscapes like the Southern Hauran.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Conferences: ICAANE IX - round-up

This is a regular International Conference on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, held in Warsaw in 2011, due to be in Vienna next time, but this year in Basel, Switzerland.

After Registration at Universität Basel on afternoon of Sunday 8th June, we were off to a fast start the next day with plenary lectures followed by four and half days of several simultaneous lectures on various parts and periods of the ANE. Sometimes hard to get from one place to another in time.

As the name implies, ICAANE is mainly devoted to pre-Classical archaeology, though there were several interesting lectures on Petra and the Nabataeans. Also of interest was a (disturbing) 3-hour session on Syria. Don Boyer gave a very informative and superbly professional (as you would expect) talk on his research on the water supply of Roman Gerasa which got a good reception and useful questions and comments.

I would not normally have gone to ICAANE which seldom gives much attention to the Roman Near East. This year, however, Dr. Ueli Brunner (Department of Geography, University of Zurich) – who gave a lecture in UWA about 18 months ago on his work in Yemen, had organised a Workshop on Kites. So I gave a lecture on Kites in the Harret Khaybar of west-central Saudi Arabia. The plan is to publish all these Kites papers as a book – a quick and high-profile publication will stimulate new research.

As always, a good reason for attending is for those conversations and contacts that grease the academic research engine. People you seldom see are right there for days and there is the opportunity to talk at length.

The University and Half-Canton of Basel each laid on a very pleasant reception and Dr Brunner took the Kites group for dinner in a delightful restaurant-pub in the back streets of Kleinbasel.

The weather was HOT – c. 35 every day. But Basel is delightful – 200 years of peace and neutrality is obviously a Good Thing. A little sight-seeing took us all at times to the Rhine where a recreation was to get into the river stream with clothes in an inflated backpack and let the current drift you downstream.

The Boyers and Kennedys joined up one afternoon to take the (free) public transport 12 km east to visit the superb ruins of the Roman city of Augusta Raurica, just outside modern August. You may remember a lecture to the Roman Archaeology Group of Perth on this town by Martina Müller a few years ago. More on this site later.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Research: John William Burgon (1813-1888)

Petra – “A rose-red city, half as old as Time”

Not again! How many more times is that line going to be quoted by everyone who ever writes anything about Petra!

Many people do know the line and a good many could tell you it was from a poem written by John William Burgon (1813-1888) – ‘Dean Burgon’. Much less well-known is that Burgon had never visited Petra – or even the region. In 1845, a very mature student of 32, he entered a poem in the competition for Oxford’s Newdigate Prize. The theme that year was ‘Petra’, a place increasingly ‘in-the-news’ as a steady trickle of bolder western travellers undertook the immensely demanding journey, and wrote about it when they returned home. Burgon won on this – his third attempt, joining an illustrious list of winners over the two centuries including Oscar Wilde, Matthew Arnold and John Buchan.
Photograph of John William Burgon from: Goulburn 1892 John William Burgon late Dean of Chichester: A Biography with extracts from his letters and early journals, Vol. 1 (John Murray: London).
Even less well-known is that Burgon eventually did visit Petra - but not till 17 years later by which time he was almost 50. Two publications offer lengthy and – at the time published, fairly comprehensive lists of western travellers to Petra before 1914. Oddly, neither includes Burgon and a search through even other 19th century writers now easily found for free download, reveals no knowledge of Burgon’s visit …. while endlessly quoting his poem.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Conference: 9th ICAANE Basel, Switzerland, June 9-13, 2014

Icaane LogoThe 9th biannual International Conference on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East is coming up in June of this year. The Conference is being hosted by the University of Basel (Kollegiengebäude der Universität Basel)

You can find all the information you need on the conference website:

We will be presenting Kites in Saudi Arabia in the 1st session of the workshop Desert Kites - Archaeological Facts, Distribution and Function.
Abstract: Although it has long been known that Kites were to be found in Saudi Arabia, it is only very recently that the availability of high-resolution imagery on Google Earth and Bing Maps has enabled researchers to identify them far more widely and in greater numbers than previously believed. In particular, imagery for the areas around Khaybar and Al-Hiyat revealed over 200. Now the high-resolution imagery has been extended more widely and a fuller picture can be formed. The Kites are varied in size and shape but many are of a distinctive, angular form not found elsewhere in ‘Arabia’. With an increased data set, greater familiarity with the wide variety of other, probably contemporary, stone-built structures in the region, and with the geological and vegetational environment, there is an opportunity to offer a more detailed analysis and interpretation than previously done by Kennedy and Bishop.

You can download the full list of workshops complete with abstracts here:

Conference: Big Work for Small Planes – Using UAVs and Kites for Archaeology, Berlin, May 23-24, 2014

TOPOI house Dahlem in Berlin will be hosting a symposium organised by the ArchaeoLandscapes Europe Project (ArcLand) and the Berlin Free University Excellence Cluster Topoi on the use of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) for archaeology and cultural heritage.

The program has been released, you can find it here:

We are looking forward to the presentations and hope to see you there.

Conference: Green Arabia, Oxford April 2-4, 2014
In April 2014, the University of Oxford and Paleodeserts Project hosted an international conference called ‘Green Arabia’. It was sponsored by the Saudi government, launched by HRH Prince Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, a former air force pilot and Space Shuttle astronaut) and Prof. Ali Ghabban (Director General of the Department of Antiquities). The entire proceedings were under the auspices of a significant recent development, ‘The King Abdullah Heritage Initiative’.

What has this all got to do with Roman or Aerial Archaeology, or Remote Sensing for that matter? Saudi Arabia is huge – over 2 million km2, but its archaeology is barely known to the wider world and the vast majority of its sites are uncatalogued. A large part of the country – the Hedjaz in the northwest, was once part of the Nabataean kingdom and of the Roman province of Arabia (largely modern Jordan). There are superb Nabataean sites in the Hejaz (especially Mada’in Saleh) and there have been important excavations there in recent years. Several Latin inscriptions from the kingdom attest to the Roman presences, especially that from the island of Farasan at the far south of the Red Sea.

The present initiative to open up archaeological research in Saudi Arabia is a welcome development.

You can see the opening remarks by HRH The Prince of Wales and HRH Prince Saltan Bin Salman on the Paleodeserts' website:, where you will also find the conference details and abstracts.