Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.
The scenes are haunting. A video camera strapped to the nose of a drone aircraft first shows only a spinning, sunlit horizon in the barrens of southern Jordan.
Then the camera swoops, low and slow, over a hilltop whose surface recalls photographs of the lunar battlefields of World War I Europe. Crater after crater gouge the hill's stony surface. It looks like the aftermath of a murderous artillery barrage.
But the holes aren't the result of explosions. Each has been dug, laboriously, one spadeful at a time, by an army of looters. The casualty: a historic site called Fifa, containing more than 10,000 Bronze Age tombs stuffed with pottery, carnelian beads, and shell bracelets, a vast necropolis that some archaeologists associate with Sodom and Gomorrah, the "cities of the plain" destroyed by God in the Bible.
"They didn't seem particularly concerned," Morag Kersel, an archaeologist at DePaul University in Chicago, said of the tomb raiders she encountered in the Jordan River Valley while deploying her unmanned aircraft to assess the damage. "Some were just kids. They even came up to talk to us."
Antiquities trafficking is nothing new in the Middle East, where political instability and a rich trove of history combine to feed a global market hungry for Holy Land artifacts.
The plundering of Iraq's fabled Mesopotamian sites during and after its recent war spotlighted the problem. And today, reports from embattled Syria suggest that pilfered artifacts are being swapped for guns.
Jordan, an oasis of relative calm in the region, has fared much better than most of its neighbors. But local poverty and the foreign demand for mementos fueled by religious tourism still takes a toll. Some of the ancient world's largest cemeteries, which have crowned the hilltops and mesas along the parched eastern shores of the Dead Sea for as long as 5,500 years, have been ravaged by pothunters.
"Perfect for the Job"
The only novelty in this panorama of cultural destruction are drones—a high-tech tool that archaeologists are using to understand and perhaps help control the artifact trade.
"You need to know what's been lost before you can protect what's left," said Kersel, who will be surveying the looting damage at Jordan's Dead Sea sites over the next five years. "Drones are perfect for the job. They're cheap. And they give you aerial data that's way more detailed than satellites."
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—known to the public mostly through their controversial military applications in surveillance and the targeted killings of combatants in war zones such as Pakistan and Afghanistan—are quietly revolutionizing modern field archaeology.
The pilotless aircraft have been employed to map remote Moche culture burial sites in Peru and construct 3-D images of Gallo-Roman ruins buried under Swiss highways. In at least one case, the small, remotely controlled craft have also located new, hard-to-reach rock art sites in the American Southwest.
"A whole set of technologies have come together over the past five to seven years that makes drones extremely attractive," said Austin "Chad" Hill, an archaeologist and drone pilot with the University of Connecticut who is assisting with Kersel's research. "You can attach magnetometers, barometers, GPS devices, and all sorts of cameras to these things. It gives you enormous amounts of useful data."
Hill displayed his drone piloting skills recently at a 6,500-year-old Copper Age site called Marj Rabba in northern Israel.
Using a Skywalker 1680 model plane that weighed about ten pounds, Hill launched the small aircraft by hand and flew it with a small, radio-controlled handset. An inexpensive pocket camera mounted in the drone's belly took thousands of near-infrared digital photos of surface vegetation, which would be analyzed for subtle differences in coloration to reveal underground buildings. (Grass growing on top of rock structures is often stunted, and appears to be a different hue in that range of the color spectrum.)
Computer modeling of the photographs, snapped automatically every second, allowed the archaeologists digging at the site to measure the land's every bump and depression within an accuracy of half an inch. With such topographic data, they would be able to build extraordinarily detailed 3-D images of the site.
The only threats to Hill's drone were cows and goats meandering into the craft's landing path.
"The components for a typical drone cost about $1,000," Hill said. "You build them yourself. Hiring a manned plane to do this would be way more expensive."
Conventional aerial photography is less useful, Hill added, because the drones' unhurried, ground-skimming flights capture far more granular imagery.
Back in Jordan, Kersel is relying on Hill's drones to track incremental fluctuations in illegal digging over time.
So far, she has discovered that looters—mostly destitute local farmers—are reworking old holes at Fifa. This suggests that the easy pickings have been exhausted.
In addition, Kersel hopes to trace the flow of Bronze Age pots to neighboring countries such as Israel, where some Jordanian artifacts may end up relabeled as "early Canaanite" or "from the time of the prophets" to attract biblically inspired buyers.
Israel strictly regulates the sale of artifacts found after 1978, when its antiquities law was passed. But this doesn't prevent unscrupulous dealers from pre-dating their stock.
Monther Jamhawi, director general of the Department of Antiquities in Jordan, said the solution to looting was enforcing existing laws and imposing heavy penalties for robbing the nation's past.
"It's important for the public to recognize that the significance of these sites is historic, esthetic, intellectual," Jamhawi said. "It's not about hidden gold."
As for the drones, neither governments nor archaeologists are proposing to deploy them—yet—for surveillance purposes, to protect the ancient dead.
From 2013 to 2020, writer Paul Salopek is recreating the epic journey of our ancestors on foot, starting at humankind’s birthplace in Ethiopia and ending at the southern tip of South America, where our forebears ran out of horizon. Along the way he is engaging with the major stories of our time—from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival. Moving at the slow beat of his footsteps, Paul is also seeking the quieter, hidden stories of people who rarely make the news. To read Paul Salopek's latest dispatch, go to: outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com