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The Apamea archaeological site in Syria in 2009 (photo by Arian Zwegers, via Flickr)

Cultural heritage management tends to suffer from limited funding and resources, which can make a crisis — whether natural disaster, pipeline construction, or war — that much more catastrophic for assessing what’s in need of protection. An open-source system called Arches is the first online tool designed specifically to inventory heritage sites. It was created through a partnership between the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), and its third version launched earlier this month.

The two organizations now using a beta version of Arches 3.0 are HistoricPlacesLA, which is dedicated to mapping and relating the significance of historic sites in Los Angeles, and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives for Syria and Iraq (SHI). The collaboration between WMF and GCI started back in 2004, when their Iraq Cultural Heritage Conservation Initiative focused on Iraq’s cultural heritage during and after the 2003 war. Later they partnered on the Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, Jordan (MEGA-Jordan), an Arabic-English site that was also based on the web and used a geographic information system (GIS) to standardize and centralize information on Jordan’s archaeological sites. Arches came into existence through these projects and following a decade of software development — since there was no preexisting platform for cultural inventory available.

ASOR homepage for Arches (courtesy WMF)

“This database will allow us to include an inventory of cultural heritage, a timeline of available imagery, and include our damage assessments of those sites all in one location,” Susan Penacho, associate director of geospatial initiatives at ASOR, told Hyperallergic. “Aspects of this database will be online and visible to the public so that they can be kept up to date on the condition of sites in areas which are currently in conflict.”

Use of Arches for ASOR could be especially essential in light of ISIS’s recent destruction of cultural sites in Syria, with ASOR SHI incorporating data from archaeological sites, monuments, museums, libraries, archives, and historic architecture into one inventory documenting the extant cultural heritage of the country.

“This dataset is useful in identifying patterns of damage, agricultural encroachment, and preservation and track the cultural heritage situation throughout Syria,” Penacho said. “Researchers are able to use this information to gain a more comprehensive look that has not been previously available within a single set of data.”

Demonstration of Arches (courtesy World Monuments Fund)

Demonstration of Arches (courtesy World Monuments Fund)

Penacho also explained how this inventory could assist in “preparing emergency response measures to safeguard these heritage sites,” with fast condition assessments helping with reconstruction and stabilization. “The ASOR SHI is also developing proposals for future large scale preservation projects and providing resources for mitigation projects for sites that have been damaged during the conflict,” she added.

Whether the ongoing conflict in Syria, the recent earthquake in Nepal, or the potential of architectural loss in Los Angeles from an eventual major earthquake of its own, there is a need for a comprehensive and accessible inventory of historic sites. Other projects like Endangered Archaeology and the Operational Satellite Applications Programme of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research are also documenting archaeological sites and damage, drawing on satellite imagery and available data. Arches is available for anyone to download and customize as their own inventory, whether at a local or national level, to help make more informed decisions when a cultural catastrophe occurs.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...