Images from spy satellites are revealing lost outposts along the so-called Silk Road and traces of long lost empires in the desert regions of Afghanistan.
These regions, which are virtually off limits for archaeologists are now being explored thanks to a collaboration funded by the U.S. Department of State, allowing experts to use commercial satellite data, along with U.S. spy satellite and military drone images of remote places too dangerous for researchers to visit, due to ongoing battles between Taliban Forces and the Kabul government.
The treasure trove of archaeological findings come from images collected for decades by commercial and spy satellites as well as drones.
According to Science Mag, among the findings are caravanserais, huge complexes designed to house travelers and built from the early centuries B.C.E. until the 19th century, to networks of ancient canals invisible from the ground.
“The capability to explore a relatively little-known region efficiently and safely is really exciting,” said David Thomas, an archaeologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who has done remote sensing work in Afghanistan but is not a member of the mapping team.
“I’d expect tens of thousands of archaeological sites to be discovered. Only when these sites are recorded can they be studied and protected.”
The Silk Road was a massive network of roads that spanned all the way from Japan and the Korean Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
For centuries, ancient traders transported luxuries such as tea, precious gems, perfume, spices and, of course, silk, from the east to the west along these land routes.
At the midpoint of Central Asia, the geographical region that is now Afghanistan, we find the crossroad of old trade routes which benefited from all the trade that flowed through the region.
When the silk routes flourished, the empires of the region accumulated great wealth, according to the United Nations Assistance Missions in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
Mainstream scholars argue that once the sea lanes opened between India, China and the West in the 15th and 16th centuries, these trade routes, and the once rich empires that benefited from them, declined. However, the new images of spy satellites reveal that these commercial routes continued to prosper a few centuries later.
Interestingly, the observational program is also discovering the lost history of other eras.
The images collected in the 1970s are being reexamined to reveal hidden channels that extend through the provinces of Helmand and Sistan.
These channels were probably built during the Parthian Empire and helped agriculture in the region.
The images also revealed the crucible of religions that once thrived in the area, from the fire temples of Zoroaster to the Buddhist stupas.
Featured image credit: A satellite image shows a 17th-century caravanserai / Digital Globe INC,