QASR BSHIR, Jordan — The helicopter door opens and Robert Bewley leans out hundreds of feet above the Hisban Roman ruins outside Amman, Jordan. Feet on the struts, the Oxford University archaeologist begins snapping photos as the chopper circles the ancient stones.
Sheep flock far below amid marble columns from 1,700 years ago. After a few minutes, Bewley squawks directions into a radio headset, and the helicopter banks toward another site sitting on a cliff above a major highway.
“To discover sites if we were just out on the ground would be really difficult,” Bewley said. “In an hour’s flying we can record between 10-20 sites and once they’re recorded through digital photography, that’s a record that will last forever.”
Bewley and project founder David Kennedy aim to discover and preserve archaeology through a growing archive of 91,000 images of sites across the Middle East and North Africa.
While Roman, Ottoman, Byzantine, Nabatean, Neolithic and British imperial sites have been uncovered, the pair has also revealed in the past 19 years both mysterious man-made rock structures and “catastrophic” urban sprawl destroying and threatening sites across the kingdom.
Refugees fleeing wars in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Syria have decimated Jordan’s land and water resources over the past few decades, Kennedy said.
“I could see the archaeology was disappearing, and one of the things that’s been quite shocking since then is to see that the process is accelerating,” he said. “It’s now at an almost catastrophic level.”
Their photographs show the northern city of Jerash slowly enveloping Roman ruins there. Other photos show site after site bulldozed, roads cut through Nabatean temples and Roman forts, and a Neolithic cemetery ransacked by looters. An Umayyad palace visible 10 years ago is now gone, razed to make way for an olive orchard.
Destruction of antiquities is clear from the air, but so are thousands of enormous man-made rock structures once known as “the works of the old men” in Jordan’s bleak basalt desert.
Their 4,000-9,000-year old weathered stones blend into the rocky landscape, and lay camouflaged for millennia. Before the invention of flight, famous colonial travelers like Gertrude Bell walked right past them, Kennedy said.
“For all practical purposes they saw nothing,” he said.
British pilots delivering mail between Cairo and Baghdad in the 1920s first noticed the structures starkly contrasting with the pale desert floor. Not knowing what they were, the pilots nicknamed them “kites” after crude children’s drawings. World War II halted the photography, which only resumed when Kennedy and Bewley soared over with Nikon cameras.
“Just by going up a few hundred feet, we could see that there were literally thousands of kites there,” Kennedy said.
Roughly 4,500 “kites” of regional variety have since been found across the Fertile Crescent in Armenia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, according to the Lyon-based Global Kites Project.
“My god it was just amazing what you cannot see on the ground,” said Gary Rollefson, a professor emeritus at Whitman College who has worked in Jordan since 1978. “We could tell there were some humps over there, but the distribution or density of these things was just overwhelming.”
Their peculiar geometry __ pendants, circles and fans __ drew archaeologists like Rollefson to dig in Jordan’s barren eastern desert.
Rollefson has found oak, duckweed, cattails and tamarisk pollen in red mud at a Neolithic site called Wisad Pools. Other archaeologists have found animal bones. The discoveries have led archaeologists to reach a consensus, he said.
“There’s no question, that place was a lot greener than it is today,” Rollefson said. “There used to be a heck of a lot more water.”
The evidence suggests the kites were massive hunting traps used to corral wild game in a much greener environment. People would drive herds between stone walls that would slowly narrow the running animals into dead-end pits six-feet deep.
“They become like a Safeway meat market,” Rollefson said. “Just leave them down there until you want to eat them.”
At first Kennedy wasn’t allowed to fly when he began the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East in 1978 under the patronage of Prince Hassan and advice from Glubb Pasha, the famous British leader of the Arab Legion. Kennedy spent 25 years collecting aerial photos and old maps before Google Earth made satellite images widespread.
The Aerial Archaeology in Jordan project took to the skies in 1997 when the head of the air force, Prince Faisal, brother to reigning King Abdullah II, authorized flights on Jordanian military helicopters. Bewley then joined Kennedy, and a decade later, the project increased the range and number of flights after receiving grants from the Packard Humanities Institute adding up to $2.5 million.
Bewley said the aerial perspective, even in an age of Google Earth, can inform and lead to new discoveries.
Andreas Zerbini, a research associate at Oxford University, has flown with the pair to photograph limestone outcroppings in northwestern Jordan outside the city of Irbid. These geological features are telltale signs of ancient agriculture.
Hi-resolution photos and GPS coordinates enable Zerbini to identify quarries, wine presses, reservoirs, and tombs.
“Even from the helicopter it might not look like something, but I know there’s a 90 percent chance there will be something human-made,” he said.
Kennedy and Bewley moved their database to Oxford where it supports the larger region-wide Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project. With new funding from the Augustus Foundation, the team Kennedy and Bewley lead aims to expand the scope of historic and contemporary images __ and keep flying.
“We frequently find ourselves smiling with delight because you can’t speak very often because of the sound of the helicopter. But as you’re flying over them you find yourself grinning foolishly because there’s something rather remarkable opening up beneath you going on and on and on into the distance,” Kennedy said.
Over 7 million people have viewed the archive online __ which has more than 1,000 pages of photos __ and 161 research projects have used the images, Bewley said.
“We don’t want them to be just sitting in an archive, so it’s an online database of photographs that people can look at and be able to do their research on,” he said. “The purpose of taking the photographs is that people will use them in the future.”
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Andreas Zerbini’s last name.