Declassified satellite imagery from Cold War reveals 396 previously undocumented Roman forts

Modern-day researchers build on the pioneering archaeological surveys conducted by Father Antoine Poidebard in the 1920s, discovering 396 additional Roman forts peppered across the Northern Fertile Crescent.

roman fort
369 previously undocumented Roman forts discovered in the Northern Fertile Crescent and across Syria point towards their use as possible travel and trade stations.

A team of researchers led by Professor Jesse Casana from the Department of Anthropology and Director of Dartmouth College’s Spatial Archaeometry Lab, examined declassified CORONA and HEXAGON satellite imagery from the Cold War and discovered 396 ancient Roman forts. The research findings were published in the journal Antiquity.

A pioneer in aerial archaeology

A Jesuit missionary and bold explorer, Father Antoine Poidebard pioneered aerial photography across the Mediterranean, Algeria, Tunisia, and over Syria’s desert steps. The French pilot and amateur archaeologist focused on identifying and documenting the presence of ancient sites and Roman forts tracing the Eastern frontier of the once mighty Roman Empire, peppered across what we now know as modern-day Syria.

Poidebard identified as many as 116 forts of approximately 50 by 100 metres in size – each large enough in size to accommodate animals such as camels, horses and soldiers – which were recorded as stretching out from North to South and proposed that they served as a barrier or border to fend off enemies coming from the East.

Facilitating travel and trade

The research team used declassified satellite imagery from the Cold War era, notably from the CORONA and HEXAGON programmes, which ran between 1960 and 1986. The imagery was made available through the CORONA Atlas Project.

"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,” said Professor Casana.

Their study concentrated on a 300,000 square kilometre (km) area in an archaeologically rich region of the world known as the Northern Fertile Crescent. Initially, the researchers mapped 4,500 confirmed archaeological sites. Following that, they studied and documented every additional site-like feature within 5 by 5 km survey grids. This methodical technique resulted in the discovery of 10,000 previously unknown sites, considerably enlarging the archaeological record.

At the cornerstone of discovery

Of the 116 forts discovered by Poidebard, the researchers only found 38. The reason for this is that the forts – made of stone and mud – simply degraded with time as the land was turned over for agriculture and other uses.

Despite this, the investigators discovered 396 new forts to add to the record. Of the 396 forts discovered, 290 resided within the research area and 106 were located in western Syria, in Jazireh. In addition to forts identical to the walled fortresses discovered by Poidebard, the crew discovered those with noticeable interior architectural features and some surround a mounded citadel.

Contrary to the belief that the forts served as a boundary between the Roman Empire and the East, the researchers of the present study believe that their findings suggest that the forts were used for travel and trade. Casana explains that "our analysis further supports that forts were likely used to support the movement of troops, supplies, and trade goods across the region."

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