Archaeologists take to the air to photograph ancient cities, temples and forts.

October 16 at 8:00 AM

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 flies 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 and 20 sites, and once they’re recorded through digital photography, that’s a record that will last forever.”

Bewley and David Kennedy aim to discover and preserve archaeology through a growing archive of sites across the Middle East and North Africa with 91,000 images.

The pair has uncovered sites thousands of years old and also revealed mysterious man-made rock structures, while also identifying new construction destroying and threatening sites across the kingdom.

Refugees fleeing wars in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Syria have worsened the situation, 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. A palace some 1,200 years old that was visible one year ago was razed to make way for an olive orchard.

Destruction of antiquities is clear from the air, but so are enormous man-made rock structures in Jordan’s basalt desert. Their 4,000- to 9,000-year-old weathered stones blended into the rocky landscape for millennia.

Pilots delivering mail between Cairo and Baghdad in the 1920s first noticed the structures. They nicknamed them “kites” after simple children’s drawings.

“Just by going up a few hundred feet, we could see that there were literally thousands of kites there,” Kennedy said.

The Aerial Archaeology in Jordan project took to the skies in 1997, but Bewley said even in an age of Google Earth, the aerial perspective can inform and lead to new discoveries.

“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.

The database can be found at Kennedy and Bewley aim to expand the scope of images — and to keep flying.

“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.

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