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A newly discovered geoglyph in Kazakhstan (all images via Google Earth)

Archaeologists using Google Earth have stumbled on more than 50 geoglyphs (massive earth drawings) created by ancient peoples in Northern Kazakhstan in Central Asia, LiveScience reported. They’re difficult to see from the ground, but crisp satellite imagery shows massive squares, rings, crosses, and even one swastika formed from mounds of earth and timber. 

Geoglyph in Kazakhstan

“You open Google Earth and spend hours looking through the territory, and if you’re lucky, you find something,” archaeologist Dr. Irina Shevnina said of the discovery in an email to Hyperallergic. “The geoglyphs were found quite by accident, though such monuments in Kazakhstan were not unknown.”

While it seems remarkable that such vestiges of ancient life were found through such a contemporary, openly accessible tool, Google Earth discoveries are quickly becoming commonplace. Using aerial imagery, satellite archaeologist David Thomas has identified over 670 archaeological sites in Afghanistan’s Registan Desert, including a Medieval Ghaznavid fortress. University of Western Australia professor David Kennedy has found thousands of ancient tombs in Saudi Arabia. Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Sprajc even located the lost city of Lagunita.

And those are just the professionals. As an Australian Geographic article noted last year, Google Earth is fueling a new kind of “armchair archaeology.” In 2005, Italian computer programmer Luca Mori noticed some unusual forms, which archaeologists later identified as a 2,000-year-old Roman villa. In 2008, the geologist Arthur Hickman stumbled on a massive meteorite crater in Washington. And last year, amateur satellite archaeologist Angela Micol found what look like eroded, triangular mounds in southern Egypt that could be its long-lost pyramids. You no longer have to be Indiana Jones to uncover lost civilizations, it seems (though don’t get your hopes up for Atlantis). 

Making such discoveries has become slightly easier; however, deciphering them remains just as difficult. Geoglyphs have been found around the world, from the Peruvian desert to the Ohio countryside, but archaeologists are still unsure of their meaning. Were they used in rituals? Could they have been a way of showing something to the gods, rather than to men?

Since the Kazakhstan ones were discovered last year (but only reported recently), Dr. Shevnina, her colleague Andrew Logvin, and a team of researchers from Kostanay University in Kazakhstan and Vilnius University in Lithuania have been conducting site excavations and radar surveys, and taking their own aerial photographs. After reporting their findings at the European Association of Archaeologists’ annual meeting in Istanbul, they told LiveScience, “As of today, we can say only one thing — the geoglyphs were built by ancient people. By whom and for what purpose, remains a mystery.”

“Unfortunately, no scientist will answer this question,” Dr. Shevnina elaborated in her email to Hyperallergic, “as it should be asked to the ancient people who built the geoglyphs.”

Geoglyph in Khazakstan

Geoglyph in Khazakstan

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...