Petra: Mysterious Ancient Monument In Jordan Discovered By Drone, Satellite Images

Anya Wassenberg

Petra, Jordan, is the site of a surprising discovery by archaeologists using satellite and drone imagery to survey beneath the sands. A gigantic monument was discovered at the Petra UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the southern part of Jordan, an area that has been extensively excavated by archaeological researchers throughout the last two centuries.

Archaeologists Sarah Parcak, a National Geographic fellow, and Christopher Tuttle, the executive director of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers authored a study about the newly discovered Petra monument that was published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research and was first reported by National Geographic.

The aerial perspective allowed the archaeologists to find the surface traces that led them to identify the outlines of the monument beneath Petra's sands. The two researchers used high-resolution satellite imagery to focus on the site and then followed up with targeted drone photography and surveys on the ground to confirm their suspicions. The monument was found about a half a mile from the center of the ancient city of Petra.

Clues found in the sands of Petra point to an elaborate structure that may have been used as a public monument of sorts. What they found was a sort of platform that represents an enormous structure, a monument about 184 feet by 161 feet (or 56 meters by 49 meters).

There was a smaller platform inside the larger structure that was at one time paved with flagstones, with a row of columns along one side. The remains of a huge staircase lead to a small building that sat on top of the larger platform. The building measured about 28 feet square (8.5 meters) and opened to face the staircase.

Petra, located in what is now ancient Jordan, was a caravan city where the desert traders stopped along their way. It is believed that the city was founded in the second century BCE and was the capital city of an Arab people called the Nabataean until about the seventh century CE.

Structures in the area are made of the native red sandstone, but none of them are on the same massive scale as the newly discovered monument platform.

There were two waves of building and construction that have been discovered in Petra. The first began with the founding of the city in the second century BCE, and the second which spanned the first century B.C. into the second century CE.

While the site of the newly discovered monument in Petra has not yet been excavated, there is pottery near the surface of the area that dates from the second century BCE, which suggests that that enormous building was part of the first wave.

The discovery of the ancient monument comes as something of a surprise in an area as extensively researched as Petra. The Petra Archaeological Park has been a popular site for both tourists and archaeologists since Johann Burckhardt, the first Western explorer, arrived in 1812. However, as noted in a BBC News report, tourist numbers have been affected in recent years by the ongoing conflict with ISIS (Islamic State) that rages throughout the Middle East. Christopher Tuttle is quoted in National Geographic.

"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. 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."

Who knows what other monuments or even more surprising discoveries wait under Petra's ancient sands?

[Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images]