CORONA Photography

Nimrud, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, photographed 28 Feb 1967. See here for larger map.

Archaeological Applications of Declassified Satellite Photographs

In 1995, President Clinton declassified 800,000 photographs from CORONA, the United States’ first spy satellite program, in order to make them available for environmental and historical research.  Subsequently, a further declassification has released thousands more images from the KH-7 program, a “spotter” satellite that took high resolution images of places of interest identified from CORONA photographs.  Archaeologists working in the Near East have been quick to embrace this newly available resource, which capture images of sites and landscapes in the 1960’s.  Research into ancient landscapes at Harvard has used these images to investigate the communication networks of the Early Bronze Age, state-sponsored irrigation under the Assyrian and Sasanian empires, and pastoral nomadic landscapes in northwestern Iran and southeastern Turkey.

For Near Eastern archaeology, CORONA and KH-7 photographs have two tremendous advantages over other space-based imagery sources. Many rural parts of the Near East have escaped agricultural development and urban growth until recent decades, when  many have been damaged or destroyed. CORONA photographs predate this destructive development and thus preserve a record of landscapes that are difficult or impossible to map on the ground.  More recent commercial sensors such as Ikonos and QuickBird have a higher resolution, but they capture the modern damaged landscape.

CORONA photographs are also of high resolution, capable of displaying features as small as 2 m in ideal conditions. Many features visible in CORONA cannot be seen in medium resolution satellites such as Landsat (30 m) or ASTER (15 m).
CORONA and KH-7 scenes can be previewed and ordered through the USGS EarthExplorer website. CORONA satellite imagery of northern Mesopotamian sites and landscapes can be freely downloaded at the Landscapes of Settlement and Movement in Northeastern Syria online database.

Online Imagery

Ur, Jason A. 2010. Landscapes of Settlement and Movement in Northeastern Syria. (online repository of georeferenced CORONA imagery of northern Mesopotamian sites and landscapes, freely downloadable)


Spying on Antiquity: Declassified Intelligence Satellite Images and Archaeology. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, Harvard University. Curated with students of Anthropology 97x, Sophomore Tutorial in Archaeology and graduate student, Adam Stack, with Associate Curator of Visual Anthropology Ilisa Barbash. April 29, 2010 through February 7, 2011. [Boston Globe review]


Click here for a list of Jason Ur's publications on CORONA satellite photography.

Lectures and Presentations

“Spying on the Ancient World: Archaeological Applications of Declassified US Intelligence Satellite Photography in the Near East.”  Presentation and poster at the Harvard University Center for Geographic Analysis’ Workshop on Remote Sensing, Cambridge, MA, February 16, 2007.[video] [slides] [poster pdf]

“State-Sponsored Irrigation Systems in the Assyrian Heartland, 702-681 BC: Reconstructions Using Declassified Intelligence Satellite Imagery and Aerial Photography.” Poster presented at the Harvard University Center for Geographic Analysis Launch Event, May 5, 2006. [poster pdf]

In the Media

"Military surveillance data: Shared intelligence" by Geoff Brumfiel. Nature, September 2011.

Investigating canals across time, from space,” by Alvin Powell.  Harvard Gazette, March 16, 2006.

"Cold War Spy Photos Reveal Bronze Age Roads," by Michael Robbins, in "100 Top Science Stories of 2003,"Discover Magazine January 2004, p. 65.

Satellites Uncover Ancient Mideast Road Networks,” by John Noble Wilford.  New York Times, January 28, 2003.

"Spying on the Ancients," by Andrew Curry. ArchaeologyMarch-April 2003, p. 13.

"Cold War Spy Photos Detail Ancient Roads," by Nancy Moffett. Chicago Sun-Times, January 28, 2003.

"Spy Photos Reveal Ancient Middle East Road Network," Reuters News Agency, 27 January 2003.

Elsewhere on the Web

Facts about the CORONA program from the National Reconnaissance Office

USGS’ EarthExplorer, for ordering CORONA and KH-7 photographs.

The Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes (CAMEL) at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute