Jeffrey LewisCratology

The study of the size and function of shipping crates seen on photographs (from various sources). The size and configuration of a shipping crate often will indicate what is inside.

Center for the Study of Intelligence, Glossary of Abbreviations

John Diamond in USA Today has a great story on “cratology”—the art of determining the contents of crate by its shape, recently used to identify “eight C-802 Noor anti-ship cruise missiles on board a transport plane” bound for Lebanon.

Imagine being able to guess your wrapped Christmas presents, except the presents can kill people.

(As an aside, Diamond adds an extraneous “e” to cratology.)

I first heard about cratology in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when analysts used the shape of crates to monitor Soviet shipments to Cuba. CIA analyst Thaxter Goodell explained in Studies in Intelligence:

The moment of truth for cratology came on October 10, when the first photographs of IL-28 crates en route to Cuba reached headquarters. Taken on September 28, these showed the Soviet ship Kasimov carrying ten crates which could only be for IL-28 bombers…. On the heels of persistent reports pointing to Medium Range Ballistic Missiles on the island, they led to the October 14 flight of the U-2, which brought back the first photos of ballistic missile installations.

The image above shows a Komar destroyer imposed over a crate to indicate that the Soviets were providing guided missile boats to Cuba.

I have, I confess, never seen a copy of Goodell’s article, which is quoted by Ronald Kessler in The CIA At War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror. If some kind reader sends it along, I will happy post it online. Here is the full citation:

Goodell, Thaxter L. “Cratology Pays Off.” Studies in Intelligence 8, no. 4 (Fall 1964): 1-10.


  1. yale

    Apparently you can order it here:
    Cratology Pays Off : Goodell, Thaxter L. : Fall 1964

  2. RS (History)

    You probabily know this, but the article is available at the National Archives.

  3. Andy (History)

    Not to be nitpicky, but the Komar is a guided missile patrol craft (PTG), not a destroyer. Destroyers are much larger ships and cannot be crated.

  4. A.B.

    Interestingly, if you check the articles available here:

    “Cratology” isn’t posted, though others from the same issue are. Odd.

  5. Eagle1 (History)

    Granted that “cratology” is probably well known, I am not happy that an example of its successful application was revealed by some loose-lipped officials under a promise of anonymity because :They did not want their names used because they were not authorized to discuss the incident.”

    Their blabbing ought to be Exhibit 1 in a course on “How to make intel collection harder.”