It was, as Indiana Jones might have said when he traipsed through the ruins in The Last Crusade, hidden in plain sight.
Scientists have used satellite imaging of the region surrounding one of the world’s most famous archeological sites to discover a previously unknown mysterious platform buried just over half a mile from the center of the ancient city of Petra. The discovery is the equivalent of finding a new ancient structure less than 1000 meters from the Great Pyramids of Egypt. How did we miss it and what does it mean?
In an article published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, archeologists Sarah Parcak, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Christopher Tuttle, of Brown University, described how they located a giant platform (184 feet x 161 feet or about half the size of a football field) outside of the city. The large platform was topped with a smaller platform and a comparatively modest building. The original structure included columns and a staircase. The platform, the authors wrote, was unparalleled in the region. It’s like finding evidence of Madison Square Garden in a place and time that is completely unexpected. What was it doing there? What does it mean?
Remarkably, and despite its large size, no one had ever noticed it before. It was only with improvements in remote-sensing technology that they were able to detect the structure beneath the surface of the ground. Pottery fragments found in the region permitted the archaeologists to date the platform to the mid-second century BCE, which marked the early years of Petra’s influence. As to the purpose of the platform, for now, nobody knows. In interviews Parcak said that it likely functioned for public displays, perhaps religious or political in nature. Clearly it was difficult to build and constructed for large gatherings of people. The people who lived there in the second century were known for controlling trade routes; this discovery suggests that they had centralized religious of political structures. The previously excavated tombs and burial sites tell us a great deal about how they died, the platform augments our understanding of how they lived and ruled themselves.
Given the hype and disappointment that surrounded the recent non-discovery of Nefertiti’s tomb, it’s wise for archeologists to be circumspect about the precise purpose of the platform. One thing is for sure: people in antiquity did not build structures of this size for no reason at all. This is a significant discovery that gives us a better sense of how an important ancient civilization affected the landscape around it.
Situated about 115 miles southwest of Amman, Jordan, Petra is over 2000 years old and was once a bustling metropolis. Now a World Heritage Site, the city was once the capital city of the Nabateans—the people who controlled trade routes and access to the oases in Arabia. By the fourth century BCE it was one of the most important cities in the world, but for much of its history it was “lost” (to Westerners at least). Those who went in search of it were often murdered as suspected infidel treasure hunters.
It was only in 1812, when a wealthy 27-year-old Swiss explorer called Johann Ludwig Burckhardt learned Arabic, studied the Koran, and disguised himself as a Sheikh, that Petra was discovered. Burckhardt originally set off on his travels to look for the Niger River but he told his guide he wanted to sacrifice a goat at the tomb of Aaron, the brother of the biblical prophet Moses, and was led to the ruins of the “rose-red city.” He was unable to stay, out of fear that his real identity would be unmasked. So instead Burckhardt continued with his journey to Cairo, convinced that he had found Petra, and died five years later of dysentery. He never found the Niger.
In the two hundred years since Western explorers “rediscovered” Petra, the site has not failed to capture the attention of tourists and archeologists alike. With its stunning monastery carved out of the side of desert cliffs, the ancient city of Petra has inspired many a movie-maker. The site features in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Mummy Returns, and (of course) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, to name but a few. While Petra does not house the Holy Grail or the Tomb of the Primes (probably), new technology, and the fact that it was hidden for thousands of years, means that even today the site continues to offer up new revelations about the past.
The archeologists involved think this discovery is just the beginning. The question now, as advanced technologies usher in a new age of archeological expansion, is what’s next? Atlantis, here we come.