David Thomas, a Ph.D. student in La Trobe University's archaeological program in Melbourne, said he believed his project was the first time anyone in the world had published archaeological research using data from Google Earth. Using the free Internet resource, Thomas found up to 450 possible archaeological sites in Registan, which borders Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan. The scholar said that the decision to use Google Earth was "partly born out of adversity", when a planned field trip was cancelled because of security concerns.
The region has been made inaccessible because of the ongoing military conflict between western and Afghan government forces and the former Taliban government.
Since the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan has been increasingly difficult for archaeologists to visit, he said. However, Google Earth allows archaeologists to overcome the perils of war zones.
Thomas's approach has reaped a huge bounty of new details about known archaeological sites, and uncovered hundreds of previously unknown sites in the country.
Under the project, which was presented to the recent World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, Thomas and his team have surveyed a virtually unexplored 75-kilometer by 17-kilometer (46.5-mile by 10.5-mile) strip of the Registan desert.
Overlapping images of the area were zoomed to a scale 100 meters (328 feet) above the ground and the research team then tediously viewed the image for signs of archaeological sites.
Thomas said that one 17-square kilometer (10.5-square mile) took up to nine hours in front of the computer to assess.
After the initial review of the aerial maps, they had 1800 "suspicious sites" which were then reassessed and culled to 450 sites "that we think are significant."
Among the structures the team has located are remnants of campsites, villages centered on a mosque, animal corrals, reservoir, dams and water channels and military installations such as occupation mounds.
He said that by using Google Earth he was able to expand the known area of the Ghaznavid winter capital of Bust, on the Helmand River.
The aerial technology has allowed Thomas and his team to identify remnants of structures and canals at the medieval site and expand the known area of the site.
"The most valuable aspect of what we are doing is that we can pass on the information to the Institute of Archaeology in Afghanistan. Then it is a question for them as to whether they can travel there and have the resources to investigate further," Discovery quoted him, as saying.
Thomas, whose doctorate is investigating the semi-nomadic Ghurid people and their empire that stretched from eastern Iran to Bengal in India in the latter part of the 12th century, said he hopes archaeologists will take Google Earth more seriously as a result of his finds.
"The potential for further research using Google Earth images is huge, particularly as the areas covered by high-resolution images increases," he said.