Friday, 15 December 2017

Spy satellites are revealing Afghanistan's lost empires

The lost caravans of the Silk Road in Afghanistan were recently discovered using satellite images. Images of spy satellites are revealing the lost Silk Road outposts and traces of empires that have disappeared in the desert regions of Afghanistan, reveals new research. The new archaeological knowledge comes from decades of images collected by commercial satellites and spies and drones, Science reported. Among the findings are: huge caravanserai, or outposts used by travelers on the Silk Road for millennia, and underground canals that were buried by the desert sands. The archeological sites are too dangerous to explore in person, so the new mapping effort allows researchers to study Afghanistan's archaeological heritage safely, experts said recently at a meeting of the Oriental Research Schools in the United States. "I would expect tens of thousands of archaeological sites to be discovered, only when these sites are registered can they be studied and protected," David Thomas, an archaeologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who has done remote sensing work in Afghanistan, but has not He is a member of the mapping team, he told Science. Some of the most striking sites are the massive caravasares used by Silk Road travelers dating back to the 17th century. These clay access stations could house hundreds of people and their livestock and were interspersed every 12 miles (20 kilometers), the distance caravans could travel a day before resting, Science reported. The Silk Road was a massive network of routes that spanned the world from Japan and Korea in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. For centuries, luxuries such as tea, precious gems, perfume, spices and, of course, silk, from the east made their way westward along these land routes, according to UNESCO. At the midpoint of Central Asia, the geographical region that is now Afghanistan was at the crossroads of these old trade routes and, therefore, 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). The conventional wisdom was that once maritime routes were opened between India and China and the West in the 15th and 16th centuries, these caravan routes, and once rich empires that benefited from them, declined, according to UNAMA. However, the new spy satellite images reveal that these commercial routes continued to prosper a few centuries later. The effort is also discovering the lost history of other periods of time. The images compiled in the 1970s are being reexamined to reveal hidden channels that extend through the country's Helmand and Sistan provinces, Science reported. These channels were probably built during the Parthian Empire and helped agriculture to flourish. The images also revealed the crucible of religions that once thrived in the area, from the fire temples of Zoroaster to the Buddhist stupas.

>>> ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Live Science @ http://www.sciencemag.org/author/andrew-lawler 
By Andrew Lawler, a contributing correspondent who writes frequently about archaeology.