Aerial photographs, images produced from cameras attached to planes, rockets or satellites, are used for photogrammetry and interpretation — measurements (for topographical mapping) and the identification and purpose of objects. But it was a team of archaeologists scouring Google Earth that uncovered historical camps in the Arabian desert dating back to 106AD.

The images, experts believe, are of Roman camps built to house soldiers as they prepared for a takeover of the Nabataean Kingdom. The Arab nomads settled in the area now known as Jordan and built a wealthy trade empire.

But after thousands of years, and buried by sand, how are the camps identified and what makes them Roman?

The three camps, shaped like playing cards, are characteristic of how the Romans built their temporary camps 2,000 years ago. They would also dig a moat surrounding the camp, which contributes to how they are found.

The aerial imaging picks up differences in the density in the sand, carving out the identifying rectangular shape. Conclusions were drawn based on the location and the historical Roman takeover of the Nabataean civilization, famed for building the carved cliffs of Petra in what is now Jordan.


Dr. Michael Fradley, research associate at Oxford University and part of the discovery team, says they initially identified the camps by reviewing satellite images taken from Google Maps. 

“If we had just found one camp it would be interesting, but we would only be able to make a limited interpretation of the site,” Fradley tells KUST Review. “In this case, with three camps laid out in a row, we are able to infer a great deal more about the sites because we are able to confidently say the direction in which the Roman army were traveling and their likely target. 

We can then conjecture that they link to the annexation of the Nabataean kingdom by the Emperor Trajan after 106 CE.”

These conclusions may also have changed thoughts about the nature of the Romans’ battle with the Nabataeans.

“Roman forts and fortresses show how Rome held a province, but temporary camps reveal how they acquired it in the first place,” says Dr. Mike Bishop, one of the researchers and an expert in the Roman military, in a statement released by Oxford University.

And all this because of a camera.

Aerial photography has been used as a tool for archaeologists in finding ancient ruins for over a century — the first being Stonehenge in the United Kingdom. And the development of technology over time has made it possible to find sites that have long since been buried.

Athol Yates, a humanities and social sciences professor at Khalifa University, says often, the key is using light detecting and ranging (LiDAR) technology. This is a laser-based technology that detects and measures distances to objects on the Earth’s surface and ultimately creates a distance map of the object in the area.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­“Because the settlements are often dug up, and the Romans did this all the time, they dug a moat and built a wall.

This (moat) eventually gets filled in over time but it’s less dense than the normal soil is, so when you’re using LiDAR, there will always be a depression, making it easy to spot,” Yates tells KUST Review.

Essentially, the laser fires toward the object, bouncing off its target and back to the emitting source. The time it takes to travel back allows for the measurement of distance.

“It reveals actual inundations. It’s not ground-penetrating radar, it’s just reflecting off solid things,” he says.

Khalifa University’s Athol Yates

The laser is able to bypass even the most overgrown landscapes as it can pass through leaves and the smallest spaces between tree branches, which contributes to its accuracy. As the cost reduces, LiDAR is being used across many industries.

The technology is also used in urban planning, geographical surveying, video games, movies and autonomous vehicles. It is also used by police to monitor cars zipping past on the highway — this means you can thank it for your speeding tickets.

Fradley, of the discovery team says they don’t use LiDAR in their work, “It was just through luck that our colleagues in Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East would be flying in Jordan not long after we identified the sites, and were able to take these more detailed aerial photographs of the western and central camps.”

The paper of the discovery of the Roman camps was published in Antiquity in 2023.

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