British archaeologists in bid to protect precious sites threatened by conflict in Middle East and Africa

By Culture24 Reporter | 24 February 2015

Satellite imagery and aerial photos could help protect world’s richest concentration of archaeology from Persian, Greek, Roman and Islamic empires

A photo of various archaeological depictions of biblical figures and inscriptions in stone
The Behistun Inscription in Iran© Hara 1603 / Wikimedia Commons
Experts in Oxford and Leicester are about to begin a new project which will use satellite imagery and photos from aerial sources including Google Earth to record and protect millions of archaeological sites under threat from social turmoil in the Middle East and Africa.

Nearly all the archaeological remains being examined are made of stone and earth, making them visible from the air. Tombs, settlements, forts, cities and irrigation systems are being targeted by the research team, who say the sites, which have been made inaccessible on the ground by current conflicts, range from prehistory to the past century.

“There’s the looting, which is awful, but there’s also a huge movement of people going on in the Middle East and part of North Africa as well,” Dr Robert Bewley, of the Endangered Archaeological initiative, told The World Tonight.

“That makes the pressure on the land even greater, so we know some of the refugee camps have been put near archaeological sites.

“That causes damage, and of course the countries that are taking the refugees have got to feed them, they’ve got to water them, so there’s greater pressure on the agriculture too.

“It’s about finding the sites so that we can make sure those things happen away from very sensitive archaeology.”

Dr Bewley, who tested the methodology on a trip to the region with Professor David Kennedy, believes between three to five million sites are at immediate risk.

They hope to work with local authorities and Departments of Antiquities to create an open-access database available to local archaeologists, volunteers and researchers worldwide.

“It’s right across the Middle East – we’ve been working in Jordan for many years, where we’ve seen, for example, plantations where they’ve tried to grow olives in an area of sensitive archaeology and usually have completely destroyed some really important sites,” he said.

“Ignorance is a difficult, loaded term but it’s actually not having the information that the people responsible would need to say ‘this is a protected site’ and put a sign or fence around it.

“The access to satellite imagery means that we can track the change. What we’re really doing is looking at landscape change and the way certain countries might look after their heritage, so the access to the imagery is absolutely fundamental.”

  • You can follow the project at ea.arch.ox.ac.uk from next month. A database with images and contextual information will follow later in the year.

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