Turgai, Kazakhstan might not look like much besides wide, sweeping plains. But over the past few years, archaeologists have revealed more than 200 massive earthworks, so large that you’d never notice them from the ground. As the New York Times reports today, no one knows their purpose–yet.
They’re called the Steppe Geoglyphs, or the Turgai Geoglyphs, and they were discovered by a Kazakh archaeologist browsing Google Earth in 2007. While clicking over the seemingly empty landscape, he saw remarkable patterns in the soil: crosses, boxes, swastikas, circles, and more, created from mounts of dirt only three feet high and roughly 30 feet wide. All in all, there are now 260 known geoglyphs here.
Today, the Times brings word that study of the mysterious forms is intensifying, thanks in part to NASA scientists who are prioritizing space photography for researchers who request them back on Earth. NASA has released several new images of the glyphs, dating back to 2012.
In his fascinating story, the Times’ Ralph Blumenthal talks with several researchers who posit that they may have been used for “horizontal observatories to track the movements of the rising sun,” a bit like Stonehenge. According to his sources, the huge size of the structures are forcing archaeologists to reconsider “the nature and timing of sophisticated large-scale human organization,” as the University of Winnipeg’s Persis B. Clarkson puts it to Blumenthal.
You’re probably familiar with another set of famous geoglyphs–the Nazca, in Peru, which were recently in the news after Greenpeace partially destroyed one in an idiotically ill-conceived protest. The Nazca are far more well-known, in part because they’re more accessible and because of the support of the Peruvian government to study them. Now, thanks in part to help from NASA, at least researchers are able to view Kazakhstan’s glyphs more closely from afar.
NASA astronauts and archaeologists studying early civilization may seem like strange bedfellows. But NASA actually has been focusing some of its bandwidth on archaeology since the 1980s–far earlier than you might expect–as the sensing tech aboard both its satellites and manned missions has gotten more and more advanced.
In the 1980s, a radar scan of Sudan helped archaeologists discover “ancient watercourses” via the Space Shuttle; in the 1990s, NASA and National Geographic collaborated to study aspects of Maya civilization using remote sensing technology. It makes sense: As some of NASA’s resources go to studying climate change and weather with these tools, why not also use them to further our study of human civilization?
It’s fascinating to wonder what other discoveries we’ll make about the ancient world as the novel tech of the future emerges. The more advanced our space exploration becomes, the more we’re learning just how many mysteries–like those in Turgai–still need to be explored on our own little planet.
You can read the full New York Times story here, or check out NASA’s new images here.
Contact the author at kelsey@Gizmodo.com.