Satellites on the Silk Road

Digs & Discoveries March/April 2018

(Courtesy Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership/University of Chicago Oriental Institute)

For thousands of years, Afghanistan has provided a passage for conquerors and commerce alike. It has also very often been a place of conflict. For decades, the U.S. Departments of Defense and State have had spy satellites collecting images over the country, some of which they are now sharing with researchers from the University of Chicago’s Afghan Heritage Mapping Project (AHMP). “The imagery is absolutely phenomenal,” says AHMP’s Kathryn Franklin. “Every single day in the lab someone says, ‘Do you see what I’m seeing?’ There’s something a little bit magic in it.”

Working with their Afghan colleagues, the AHMP’s goal is to record all of Afghanistan’s cultural features. One of the most recent stunning successes has been the identification of 160 large early modern caravanserais where travelers and traders would stop for the night as they and their camels made their way along the Silk Road carrying gems, spices, sugar, textiles, ceramics, paper, money, and slaves. Apart from their size and frequency, what makes the caravanserais so amazing, explains Franklin, is that the idea has persisted that as soon as people could use boats, they did so exclusively. “But now we have this overwhelming evidence,” she explains, “that these important routes were preserved and maintained by the Persian and Mughal Empires because trade and travel were important not just economically, but to their ideas of how to be a rich and powerful state.”


Letter from Nigeria

July/August 2024

A West African Kingdom's Roots

Excavations in Benin City reveal a renowned realm’s deep history

Artifacts July/August 2024

Etruscan Oil Lamp

Read Article
Etruscan Hanging Oil Lamp
(Courtesy Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della Città di Cortona; © DeA Picture Library/Art Resource, NY)

Around the World July/August 2024


Read Article
(Phillip Parton/ANU)

Digs & Discoveries July/August 2024

Bronze Age Beads Go Abroad

Read Article

Features July/August 2024

The Assyrian Renaissance

Archaeologists return to Nineveh in northern Iraq, one of the ancient world’s grandest imperial capitals

Read Article
(Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project)