Geospatial: mapping Iraq's ancient cities
October 27, 2009
- Soldier maps Iraq's past
While many Soldiers head home in the late hours of the second shift, Sgt. Ronald Peters sits at his desk scanning over imagery, maps and the Internet, sometimes as late as 5 a.m., looking for answers.
Peters, a geospatial analyst from Fort Lewis, Wash., with Multi-National Corps-Iraq C-7, is undertaking the largest mapping projects of his career. His work is helping to resolve a concern shared by both the U.S. military and the Iraqi government as troops have pulled out of cities and continue the drawdown.
"We try not to say we're mapmakers, it's more like being able to geographically depict a possible solution," Peters said.
Peters said while most everything has been mapped, geospatial analysts extract certain features from one map and combine it with features from another map to make a new one. For example, a map showing structures and roads could be combined with a map showing different types of soil to plan an irrigation system for farmers.
"What we can do is take the data that creates all the available maps and pinpoint what a customer specifically wants to create a new map that fits their needs," he said.
What was needed in this case was something that had never been done before, a complete mapping of all available information on archeological sites in Iraq.
"Back in June, one of the engineers that was working on future operations wanted to see all the archeological sites in Iraq," Peters recalled. "Everybody knows this is the cradle of civilization. There's Babylon, Ur, some pretty famous archeological sites in Iraq."
As bases were closed and troops withdrew from cities, the existing bases need to expand, without infringing on historical sites.
"We require the Iraqi government's permission to expand a camp to house relocated troops," Peters explained. "The government, for a number of reasons, might say no. One of those reasons might be the presence of archeological sites in the area."
Peters volunteered for the job and began the difficult process of creating a list of archeological sites.
"I started asking around for input from different people," he recalled. "The more I got into it the more I realized there's a lot more than just Babylon and Ur."
The process was pretty straight forward. Chief Warrant Officer Jason Davis and Peters scanned imagery to identify a mound that stands out from the rest of the terrain that could be an old city buried in the sand. Peters then examined the appropriate imagery to identify the geographical coordinates, searching online resources for references to ancient historical places in the area.
"It's fun," he said. "I love doing it; being a social science major, history and geography are two areas that have been two of my academic passions."
Rogers used a digital copy of a 1961 map of Iraq created by the Iraq Director of Antiquities and, through a process called rubber sheeting, assigned geographic coordinates to the map. There were 270 different rock monuments, cultural and historical sites.
Even though the map was a good starting point, Peters questioned the accuracy of the locations.
The 1961 map had Ctesiphon, a large site buried in history, located about 50 miles away from the location on Peters's imagery.
"The mapping software we have is a lot more accurate than what they used 48 years ago," he said. "So I can definitely compare two known spots, see it's 50 miles off on the old map and adjust. But there are places out there from the older map that I have no idea where it's at. There's nothing anywhere near it on our maps."
Peters confirmed the validity of about 100 sites using the Internet, but there were still more than 150 that left him puzzled.
When the project first started he spent half his day researching. At 250 sites, he cut back the hours, but continued working on tracking down sites on his own time from his trailer.
Then he came across an Arizona State University project claiming there were approximately 12,000 sites to be mapped and presented to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq.
After a series of phone calls and emails, Rogers linked up with Diane Siebrandt, an archeologist and cultural heritage officer at the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad.
Siebrandt shared with him information from the State University of New York.
"They had a project of about 700 sites," he said. "I compared that to the 300 sites I had and most of them were confirmed by the SUNY list and other research."
After months of work, Peters has established a map of more than 800 sites throughout Iraq.
"It would be nice to get all 12,000 but there's no possible way for us to do it, so right now what we're mainly concerned about is anything within where we are going to be operating, doing the best that we can not to infringe on any sites," he said.
Peter's ongoing effort to preserve Iraq's archeological sites now is a part of the military's diligence in caring for the ancient sites and history of the Iraqi people as U.S. forces withdraw from the country.