Drone and satellite imagery lead to monumental discovery at Petra

At the famous Petra World Heritage site in Jordan, researchers have discovered a large new monumental platform roughly a half mile from the city center— and they did it by utilizing Google Earth, satellite imagery, ground work, and even drone photography.

The archaeologists describe the unparalleled find as “a large rectangular platform” that measures about 184 feet by 160 feet and was essentially “hiding in plain site.” Within this platform is another, smaller one, that was at one point flagstone-paved and had columns on one side.

Not only that, the columns “crowned a monumental stairway,” the researchers, Sarah Parcak and Christopher Tuttle, report in the study announcing the new find in the journal Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

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The platforms also contained a small building.

The archaeologists say that the find is unique. “This monumental platform has no parallels at Petra or in its hinterlands at present,” they write in the study, adding: “The amount of effort to construct the site was massive, yet the focal building itself is quite small.”

They speculate that ancient people built the platform “when Petra was flourishing as the capital city of Nabataean kingdom, possibly as early as the mid-century B.C.E.”

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The platform and related structures probably served a ceremonial purpose— and perhaps were even used as a chapel in the Byzantine era. During Islam, it might have served a more day-to-day purpose, like as a camp site.

"I'm sure that over the course of two centuries of research [in Petra], someone had to know [this site] was there, but it's never been systematically studied or written up," Tuttle, the executive director of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, told National Geographic. "I've worked in Petra for 20 years, and I knew that something was there, but it's certainly legitimate to call this a discovery."

Sarah Parcak, an associate professor at the University of Alabama and a 2013 TED fellow, is also behind the discovery of what could be a new Viking site in North America.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger