AleppoBefore (1)

Aleppo, Syria, before the revolution (all images courtesy Oxford University) (click to enlarge)

Scholars estimate that in North Africa and the Middle East alone, there could be up to five million archaeological sites. The majority are still unknown or else have never been officially recorded — a troubling thought at a time when population explosion, urban expansion, wars, and looting threaten their survival. How can we save them for future generations if we don’t even know they exist?

This dearth of information is the impetus behind Endangered Archaeology, a massive effort at the universities of Oxford and Leicester to document North African and Middle Eastern archaeological sites. “It’s effectively a rapid survey using satellite imagery that will create a database so that anybody, whoever you are, can look at the archaeology,” project director Dr. Robert Bewley told Hyperallergic. “People can see where there’s archaeology and where the threats might be and therefore do something about it.”

The project sprang out of APAAME (Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East), an aerial documentation project in Jordan that Bewley’s been working on with colleague David Kennedy since 1998. After hearing about their work, the cultural heritage fund Arcadia got in touch with a unique proposition.

“They said, ‘Would you be interested in a project that covered the whole Middle East and North Africa because of the conflict and everything else?’” he recalled. They agreed, and Arcadia gave them $1.8 million to do it.

Aleppo after (click to enlarge)

Over the next two years, 11 full-time staff members (10 at the University of Oxford and one at the University of Leicester) will scour satellite images for landscape irregularities that could be tombs, settlements, forts, towns, cities, or field and irrigation systems. “We’re looking in areas where we know there’s archaeology and where we think there will be some pressure or some threat,” Bewley said.

Fortunately, most of the region’s archaeological sites were constructed from earth and stone, making them easy to spot them from the sky. “In Saudi Arabia, we’ve discovered what are probably settlements and burials from the prehistoric period. It’s still very early to say. We have also been looking at what we think are fish traps in the Bahrain area,” Bewley said. “We haven’t made any major discoveries yet, but we wouldn’t expect to at this early phase.”

Evaluating the sites will be an ongoing process. As Bewley explained, the more archaeologists look at an aerial image over time, the more they discover. What initially appears to be a prehistoric burial site might turn out to have been reused in a later period, while a ground visit could indicate the presence of rock art. “It’s not pretending that the moment you interpret a site, that’s the end,” he said. “It’s actually just the beginning.”

Researchers will also monitor these areas by comparing current satellite images to aerial photographs from earlier decades to see how the landscape has changed. They’ll share that information with one or two “wardens” in each country, who will be able to observe sites from the ground and work toward their conservation. Local liaisons can in turn inform the project about areas threatened by development.

“If there’s somebody in Jordan building a road — let’s say a town is building a bypass — we could provide the information for archaeologists and all the people before the road is built and say, ‘If you put the road here, between A and B, you will destroy this site, so can we move it slightly or can we record the site before it’s destroyed?’” Bewley said. “If the people who live locally near a site are interested in it and want to know more about it, it’s more likely to be protected.”

The initial open-access, GIS database will launch this month, and some fieldwork will be conducted later this year and next. Additionally, the researchers plan to collaborate with the British Museum, which is currently training archaeologists in Egypt to do on-site surveys. “We’re hoping to liaise with the museum so when they’re doing their courses we can teach [the locals] about our project,” he said. “We’re not going to save everything, but it’s about creating information.”

Bewley’s project comes at a crucial time, when wars have made on-the-ground work difficult and forced many archaeologists to abandon their posts. In a January article for Nature, Italian archaeologist Savino di Lernia argued that current conflicts shouldn’t stop archaeological scholarship; it can still be carried out remotely using digital tools. Endangered Archaeology seems like a direct answer to that call.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...