Forensic Architecture's investigation "Living Archaeology in Gaza" maps damage to an important Palestinian cultural heritage site (all images courtesy Forensic Architecture)

Forensic Architecture (FA), a London-based research agency that investigates human rights violations through environmental modeling and analysis, has published the findings of its first project pertaining to archeology.

The new report, called “Living Archaeology in Gaza,” examines Israel’s repeated attacks on an important Palestinian archaeological site in the Gaza strip.

FA has tracked the surveillance of activists and journalists and depicted Syria’s use of chemical weapons, among other projects, and last month the agency won a 2022 Peabody Award.

The latest project looks at the ancient city of Anthedon, Gaza’s first known seaport, inhabited from 800 BCE to 1100 CE. The site features Greek, Roman, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and early Islamic building and antiquities. In 1996, excavations uncovered a Byzantine cemetery, and the area was selected for tentative inclusion on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites in 2012.

FA used the findings of 1995-2005 excavations led by Professor Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem to map construction and damage to the ancient city, creating 3D renderings of the ruins.

Forensic Architecture used old photographs of excavations to digitally reconstruct the Anthedon city wall.

The report states that repeated bombings by Israeli forces and forced population density (and subsequent construction) due to the occupation have “placed this unique site under existential threat.” The report also shows damage caused by rapidly advancing coastal erosion in Anthedon, which is located along the Mediterranean Sea.

Construction over the ruins
Forensic Architecture used a social media video showing an airstrike to create this 3D map.

Using photographs and videos of air strikes and aerial photographs of craters, FA mapped where the archaeological site was bombed in years past. The report also chronicles the damage to Anthedon during Israel’s May 2021 airstrikes in Gaza, which killed 256 Palestinians and injured approximately 2,000 others.

The United Nation’s International Criminal Court classifies destruction of historical monuments a war crime, and FA’s research is accompanied by a legal report by the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq that explains how these attacks violate international law regarding armed conflicts and human rights.

The Al-Haq report also cites damage to other cultural heritage sites in the May 2021 strikes. Tell Umm Amer, first settled in 400-600 BCE, and the Saint Hilarion Monastery, one of Palestine’s earliest Christian settlements, both sustained damage.

In addition to reporting Israeli offensive attacks, FA points out the intentional preservation of similar cultural heritage sites within Israeli territory. Israeli national parks Apollonia and Caesarea contain elements of Byzantine and Roman cultures, just like Anthedon, but are protected by Israeli conservation efforts.

Ruins at Caesarea, Israel (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Al-Haq report accuses Israel of “a series of unlawful acts” targeting Palestine’s cultural heritage.

“Such actions have included removing artefacts of scientific, historical and archaeological interest; carrying out illegal archaeological excavations whose outcomes directly serve Israel’s colonial narrative, and strategically targeting and destroying any cultural sites that are not directly exploitable to confirm this narrative,” the report says.

“Through its policies and practices, Israel is targeting cultural heritage sites with the sole objective to entrench its cultural hegemony over Palestinian lands, without the Palestinian people,” it reads.

This is not the first time Israel has drawn criticism for discretionary archaeology. In 2019, the nation faced accusations of a political agenda for its excavation of an ancient pilgrimage road to Jerusalem underneath a Muslim area of the city. Since 1967, Israel has conducted hundreds of archaeological digs in the occupied West Bank, and activity conducted there by the Israeli military’s archaeological unit has been denounced by Palestinian archeologists. (In 2018, Hyperallergic reported on West Bank archeological digs for Christian artifacts funded by Evangelical groups in the United States.)

FA ends its report by detailing the environmental ramifications of increased construction, citing the findings of a 25-year-long study conducted by the European Space Agency and the United Nations Development Programme. The 2020 study shows severe erosion caused by construction along the Gaza shoreline.

“The shoreline of the Gaza Strip has undergone serious changes during the last decades threatening the livelihood of their coastal inhabitants,” FA says.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.