Monday 7 January 2019

Enter the U2 Spyplane Aerial Photography

Even if you are not old enough to remember the shooting down of Gary Powers and the huge international crisis that followed in 1960, you may have seen the more recent movie Bridge of Spies (culminating in the exchange of Powers for a Soviet spy).

A few years ago, while at a conference, Jesse Casana told me that U2 aerial photos of 1958-1960 had now been declassified and included aerial photos – not the satellite photos of the Corona programme and its successors, of parts of the Middle East. Declassified but not catalogued and hard to actually access.

Emily Hammer and Jason Ur have created a spatial index to the declassified U2 Aerial Photos for the Middle East available in the National Archives (NARA), and this can be accessed at

At least one product of that work has now been published (Hammer and Lauricella 2017) – though not by Jesse Casana. It is plainly a laborious task still to use the material but the quality is very good and – of particular interest to me, is a flight of 1960 down the Jordanian panhandle from east to west and over and beyond Azraq. The Hunting Aerial Survey of 1953 is a little earlier in date but the quality is evidently poorer and it did not extend much east of Azraq. There will be particularly useful work to be done on that key area west of Azraq where the HAS material is very useful but poor quality combining it with the better U2 material of parts of the area. It is precisely there – with better quality soils and more precipitation, that the expansion of agriculture and removal of the basalt covering has damaged and destroyed many hundreds of sites of all kinds. As we know from our AAJ project, it is often difficult today to find traces of even the large Kites visible on the Hunting photos of 1953 and many have gone entirely.

Hammer, E. and A. Lauricella. 2017. “Historical Imagery of Desert Kites in Eastern Jordan.” NearEastern Archaeology 80.2: 74-83. Available on JSTOR.
Hammer, E. and J. Ur. In press. “Near Eastern Landscapes and Declassified U2 Aerial Imagery.” Advances in Archaeological Practice.


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