This article appeared in the April 05, 2019 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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How U2 photos are helping Mideast archaeologists understand past

U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers sits in the witness chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington March 6, 1962, during his first public appearance since release by the Russians on Feb. 10, 1962. He is holding a U-2 model plane.
Peter Grier
Washington editor

Cold War espionage, and ancient Assyrian canals. Those are two things you might not put together – at first.

But over decades the vast engine of American national security has produced some surprisingly useful unintended associations and consequences. The GPS signal in your car? Developed by the U.S. military in the 1970s, and still run by the Air Force. Microwaves? Descendants of radars developed in World War II.

Now archaeologists are mining declassified U2 spy photos from the 1950s to study historic Middle East sites long since eroded by weather or destroyed by advancing civilization.

U2 aircraft were spy planes that flew at the edge of space, photographing areas of military interest in detail. The secret program was exposed in 1960 when the Soviet Union shot down pilot Gary Francis Powers. By that point U2s had been flying for more than a decade and accumulated millions of feet of film.

The newsletter “Secrecy News” reports that archaeologists from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that this footage provides an invaluable sweeping view of at least 11 countries as they looked 70 years ago.

Among the things they’ve studied: huge stone structures in Jordan called “desert kites,” thought be used as traps for hunting gazelles; evidence of canals in northern Iraq dating to the neo-Assyrian empire; and marsh Arab communities in southern Iraq flooded by modern dam development.

The U2 photos are difficult to handle. They’re not digitized, or organized for nonmilitary use. But they show that perseverance and creativity can uncover whole new sources of important information. As the archaeologists summed up their project, “U2 photos provide a window into the past.”

Now on to our stories for the day, which include an examination of how El Paso is holding up as the epicenter of border controversy, a look at how artificial intelligence is reshaping personal finance, and a review of “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg’s housing record in South Bend.

This article appeared in the April 05, 2019 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 04/05 edition
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