Using Google Earth, satellite imagery, and drones, researchers detected a structure the size of an Olympic-size pool “hiding in plain sight” just “south of the city center, and archaeologists have missed this for 150, 200 years,” according to researcher Sarah Parcak. Half a million tourists come to Petra annually, with the ruins drawing huge crowds of visitors.
While the purpose of the structure remains unclear, Parcak says, “We know it’s large, it’s significant, it’s important. It probably would have had some kind of a public function. … Could it be used for religious purposes? Was it some sort of public administrative structure? I wish I knew.”
A UNESCO world heritage site, Petra is known for its incredibly stunning structures featuring rose-colored rock faces. The setting has made its way into such films as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
“When we started this project, the idea was to apply very high-resolution 0.5 meter, which is a foot and a half, satellite imagery to look for potential new features at Petra, just because it had never been done before,” explains Parcak. “And we thought that maybe we’d find some small stone structures or roads, but we didn’t think at all that we would find anything large, just because Petra is a world heritage site and it’s been worked on intensively for nearly 200 years.”
Parcak notes that satellite imagery allows for the recording of information in different parts of the light spectrum that cannot be seen with human eyes. She originally dismissed the large structure when it popped up, but decided to pass it on to her colleague Christopher Tuttle, who was working on the ground in Petra and had discovered foundations and column bases at the site.
While the structure’s condition cannot be determined until it’s excavated, it is known that it consists of a small platform surrounded by a large rectangular platform. It is thought that the small platform may have had a row of sandstone drum columns. It also has a tiny structure on it that measures about 27 square feet. “In terms of the size of the structure, its shape, its orientation, where it’s located, there’s nothing else like it there,” Parcak says.
The researchers think the structure was built “when Petra was flourishing as the capital city of the Nabataean kingdom, possibly as early as the mid-second century B.C.E.”
The discovery has created an uproar of questions about its functions, and researchers have answered with a newly published paper in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, saying:
“The amount of effort to construct the site was massive, yet the focal building itself is quite small. The platform is located relatively close to the ancient city center but in a spot where easy access from the city center is not readily apparent.”
The excavation will likely occur over the next couple of years, and hopefully will answer some of the mystery surrounding the structure.