Satellite Monitoring of Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones

Dr. Susan Penacho
ASOR CHI investigates and reports on cultural destruction by using high-resolution satellite imagery.

ASOR CHI investigates and reports on cultural destruction by using high-resolution satellite imagery.

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Within the last decade, extremist groups throughout the Middle East have deliberately destroyed hundreds of ancient monuments, mosques, churches, shrines, cemeteries, and other sites in a systematic campaign of cultural cleansing enacted to advance radical ideologies and to achieve more worldly military, political, and economic objectives. Consequently, widespread damage to individual heritage sites and whole urbanscapes like the cities of Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria, Mosul in Iraq, and Benghazi in Libya, has resulted from sustained ground and aerial combat intensified by long-standing ethno-sectarian tensions. These harmful actions threaten our common world heritage and cultural diversity. Through cooperative agreements with the US Department of State, the American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR CHI) was formed to address the cultural heritage crisis in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. ASOR CHI investigates and reports on cultural destruction by using high-resolution satellite imagery, information from local stakeholders, media reports, and open source information.

ASOR CHI’s geospatial team utilizes remotely sensed satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe’s extensive database to confirm and complement media reporting on heritage destruction. These images come from a range of different sensors on DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1 to WorldView-3 and GeoEye-1 satellites, which have collected panchromatic and true-color images at between 50 cm and 30 cm resolution, from 2011 to the present. A 50 cm resolution means that each pixel covers an area of 50 cm, as with older satellites (e.g., Worldview-1). In the newest satellite technology, each pixel covers an area of 30 cm. This smaller pixel size allows us to see individual buildings more clearly and better identify small scale damage. Since its founding in 2014, ASOR CHI has identified and documented more than 2,000 new incidents of looting, theft, damage, and destruction of archaeological, religious, and historical sites, museums, shrines, and cultural centers from military and human activity, and agricultural and developmental disturbances.

The geospatial team incorporates regional and local analyses to assess changes related to ongoing military activity, new construction, or agricultural encroachment. Damage from airstrikes and artillery is the most commonly reported type of destruction and is the most visible within satellite imagery. Within our reporting period (August 2014-May 2018), military activity made up 61 percent of all reported damage, and disproportionately affected religious sites (74 percent) versus archaeological sites (32 percent). Intentional destructions, which were common between 2014 and 2016 (22 percent of all reported incidents), have since become less common as extremist groups have lost territory. Though the damage to urban environments has been immense, newer reports indicate the beginnings of rebuilding projects at heritage locations, like the Citadel and Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo.

Satellite imagery makes it possible to monitor looting of historic materials at both large archaeological sites and smaller mounded sites. Criminal activity inevitably peaks when combat conditions coincide with rampant regional corruption, transnational organized crime, and predatory terrorist networks. One inevitable tragedy has been the systematic pillaging of the region’s renowned cultural repositories, private collections, and archaeological sites as locals struggle to support their families by trading irreplaceable cultural assets for a pittance to exploitive mobsters, warlords, and terrorists seeking easy profits from the global illicit art and antiquities market. Hundreds of archaeological sites have been mined for antiquities, resulting in untold losses of archaeological data on the ancient Near East, home to the world’s earliest known agricultural communities and literate state-level societies, and the wellspring of several major religions and powerful empires. Illegal excavations are not often reported to authorities or in the media. Remote sensing by satellite allows us to observe the scale of looting taking place throughout this large region. This data assists local cultural heritage experts in emergency response efforts and helps combat illicit antiquities trafficking.

Though satellite imagery is extremely effective in monitoring damage, an on-the-ground survey and a comprehensive heritage study are required to complete the assessment of heritage destruction within conflict zones. ASOR CHI is collaborating with World Monuments Fund and Libyan antiquities professionals to complete a thorough damage assessment of the Old City of Benghazi, Libya. To that end, ASOR CHI’s geospatial team completed a satellite-based assessment of all buildings in the district, approximately 2,380 locations, to create maps and categorize the damage on a scale of 1–100 percent. Utilizing satellite images for each building, the team compared pre-conflict and present-day images, looking for holes in the structure, collapsed walls or roofs, visible debris or glass scatter, or severe damage to an adjacent building. Based solely on our satellite assessment, 19 percent of buildings were 60–100 percent damaged or destroyed, while 39 percent were 30–60 percent damaged. These assessments can be misleading as only large-scale damage is easily observable. Thus, we work with trained regional heritage professionals who utilize these assessments and other collection software to inform their ground survey and identify the most affected areas. We then compare the two surveys to identify the most accurate damage assessment and the buildings that are most in need of conservation efforts, which are often less damaged buildings that can be repaired instead of rebuilt. This collaborative approach of ground and aerial surveys (i.e., utilizing the strengths of various groups to assist in restoring cultural heritage to the most affected areas) is important for the future of heritage projects.

The staggering loss to our global cultural patrimony highlights the importance of rethinking current international responses through security and property protection. ASOR CHI is a part of ASOR, a non-profit organization whose mission is to initiate, encourage, and support research into, and public understanding of, the history and cultures of the Near East and wider Mediterranean world. We believe we have an ethical obligation to respond. Our project is part of an international effort to work with local stakeholders to protect their heritage and cultural identity by: (1) monitoring, reporting, and fact-finding; (2) promoting global awareness; and (3) conducting emergency response projects and developing post-conflict rehabilitation plans. ASOR CHI publishes (1) Monthly Reports summarizing regional events and cataloging incidents involving cultural heritage; and, (2) Special Reports that go into greater depth on specific topics related to cultural heritage in the region. These reports are available online.

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Dr. Susan Penacho

Dr. Susan Penacho is the project manager for Geospatial Initiatives for ASOR CHI. She may be reached at maps@asor.org. More information and published reports on ASOR CHI may be found at http://www.asor-syrianheritage.org/.