Secrecy News

Declassified U2 Photos Open a New Window into the Past

Updated below

Archaeologists are using declassified imagery captured by U2 spy planes in the 1950s to locate and study sites of historical interest that have since been obscured or destroyed.

This work extends previous efforts to apply CORONA spy satellite imagery, declassified in the 1990s, to geographical, environmental and historical research. But the U2 imagery is older and often of higher resolution, providing an even further look back.

“U2 photographs allowed us to present a more complete picture of the archaeological landscape than would have otherwise been possible,” wrote archaeologists Emily Hammer and Jason Ur in a new paper. See Near Eastern Landscapes and Declassified U2 Aerial ImageryAdvances in Archaeological Practice, published online March 12, 2019.

The exploitation of U2 imagery required some ingenuity and entrepreneurship on the authors’ part, especially since the declassified images are not very user-friendly.

“Logistical and technical barriers have for more than a decade prevented the use of U2 photography by archaeologists,” they noted. “The declassification included no spatial index or finding aid for the planes’ flight paths or areas of photographic coverage. The declassified imagery is not available for purchase or download; interested researchers must photograph the original negatives at the NARA II facility in College Park, Maryland.”

Since no finding aids existed, the authors created them themselves. Their paper also contains links to web maps to help other researchers locate relevant film cans and order them for viewing in College Park.

“These [U2] photographs are a phenomenal historical resource,” said Professor Ur. “Have a look at Aleppo in 1959 and Mosul in 1958. These places are now destroyed.”

Update: Related work involving declassified aerial imagery in the UK was described in “Use of archival aerial photographs for archaeological research in the Arabian Gulf” by Richard N. Fletcher et al, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 48 (2018): 75–82:

    Summary
    A valuable archaeological and historical resource is contained within recently declassified aerial imagery from the UK’s Joint Aerial Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (JARIC), now held at the National Collection of Aerial Photography in Edinburgh (NCAP). A project at UCL-Qatar has begun to exploit this to acquire and research the historical aerial photography of Qatar and the wider Gulf region. The JARIC collection, comprising perhaps as many as 25 million photographs from British intelligence sources in the twentieth century, mainly from Royal Air Force reconnaissance missions, is known to include large quantities of aerial photography from the Gulf that have never been seen outside intelligence circles, dating from 1939 to 1989. This paper will demonstrate how others may gain access to this valuable resource, not only for the Gulf but for the entire MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. We will explore the research value of these resources and demonstrate how they enrich our understanding of the area. The archive is likely to be of equal value to archaeologists and historians of other regions.