The view from space of a country’s disappearing culture

Published online 21 December 2016

International initiatives use satellite imagery to monitor Syria’s catastrophic loss of cultural heritage.

Meredith Brand

An image of part of the World Heritage Site of Aleppo showing the area around the citadel from March 2012 (above) and after years of raging conflict.
An image of part of the World Heritage Site of Aleppo showing the area around the citadel from March 2012 (above) and after years of raging conflict.
© DigitalGlobe
Documenting the destruction of Syria’s cultural fabric is a daunting task for archaeologists. “We always say it can’t get any worse, and then it does — and that’s the hardest part,” says Allison Cuneo, project manager for the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiative (CHI), which documents the loss of Syrian heritage.

CHI reported 851 incidents of damage to cultural heritage between September 2015 and August 2016, mostly concentrated in areas of northern Syria controlled by forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. 

With such extensive damage, there “is so much data on destruction to report, it’s like holding the ocean back with a broom,” says Michael Danti, the academic director of CHI. 

In Syria satellite archaeology, the use of high-resolution satellite images to identify historical and archaeological features on the ground, has “shifted from the discovery of new sites to predominately monitoring sites we cannot physically go to or are dangerous to visit,” Susan Penacho, project manager for geospatial initiatives at CHI, tells Nature Middle East. 

CHI gathers information on destruction by monitoring satellite images, as well as through on-the-ground contacts and open-source media. This information is disseminated in bi-monthly reports, widely-read and used by the US government, UN Security Council, EU genocide network, Interpol, FBI art crime network, and NGOs. 

Reporting damage, however, is not enough. The cultural heritage sector in Iraq and Syria need funds and advice, according to CHI, which also engages in outreach and emergency response by providing much-needed financial and logistical support for the heritage sectors in the embattled countries. They also help strategize a post-conflict response.

Syria’s torn cultural fabric

Most attention was on the Islamic State's (IS) intentional destruction of major and well-known UNESCO heritage sites. While these losses are devastating, the destruction of lesser-known archaeological sites and places of cultural significance are also momentous, and are expected to have long-term consequences.

The destruction of Syrian heritage, however, extends beyond archaeological sites. As Cuneo explains, vital places of cultural identity, such as religious buildings, parks, schools, and libraries are still being destroyed. This loss fractures places of identity and familiarity, leading to a loss of community.

IS seems to be exploiting Syrian culture for maximum psychological impact, says Cuneo. For example, in Tadmor – the town next to the Roman era UNESCO heritage site of Palmyra – IS made their prisoners smash gravestones in the local cemetery. This act, as Cuneo sees it, “forced people to erase the memory of neighbors and family [which] is psychologically catastrophic. The attack did not happen at a world heritage site, but it will have more of an impact than the destruction of the Baal Temple in Palmyra.”

Ultimately, Danti states, “what we are seeing is the erasing of cultural memory and identity.” 

Recording this cultural genocide gives it meaning, allows for the chance to organize efforts to rebuild, and will be vital in prosecuting cultural heritage criminals.

Recognizing looting and destruction from space 

Every day Penacho and her team check up on the thousands of archaeological sites, historical buildings, and places of cultural significance documented on CHI’s expansive Syrian heritage inventory. Any changes to these sites are carefully documented and plotted over time. 

Satellite imagery analysis “is basically an eye test,” Penacho explains, “you’re looking for discoloration in the ground that indicate new pits or holes. They are often just dark spots on an image, and changes in the size of structures or archaeological mounds.” 

These changes are used to identify bomb craters, looting pits, and demolished historic buildings.

Cooperation with the US State Department enables CHI to receive daily satellite images free; without this on-demand viewing platform, Penacho says the project would have been cost prohibitive. 

Limitations of satellite imagery

Penacho acknowledges that satellite images should not stand alone, but need to be corroborated with on-the-ground data. The ability to glean information from these images is reliant on environmental conditions. For example, cloud cover or smoke can obscure the pictures. This is particularly problematic as IS sets fires to obscure aerial imagery, according to Danti.

Even with a clear picture, satellites have their limitations. Large-scale damage in open landscapes are fairly easy to recognize from space. However, in an urban setting, it is more difficult to detect. Satellites cannot capture damage on the sides or interior of a building for instance. As well, satellite images can reveal only the opening of looting tunnels, but are useless for determining the extent of underground activity. 

To provide critical, on-the-ground data that allows for accurate assessments of cultural heritage damage, CHI relies on brave Syrians. 

Cuneo, who acts as a liaison with her Syrian colleagues, says, “many of these folks are risking their lives to go into these places. Particularly in IS-controlled areas where any documentation by a civilian of IS activities is met with execution.” 

Crowdsourcing: Can it help document heritage loss?

Cultural heritage initiatives like CHI also suffer from a lack of personnel. Cuneo says that CHI, “doesn’t have the human power to keep up with loss, so we need more eyes and ears to pass along information.”

To this end, CHI has developed an anonymous crowd sourcing platform, Cultural Heritage Monitor, a secure platform for individuals in Syria to report damage to cultural sites and looting. Cuneo sees Cultural Heritage Monitor as a means to “open the door to people who do not have direct access to CHI and allow for people to fight back against IS.” 

The geospatial team needs more eyes scanning satellite imagery to report destruction. CHI has partnered with a volunteer organization called TerraWatchers to support crowd sourced analysis of satellite imagery in order to monitor destruction of Syrian heritage. 

The ultimate goal of cultural heritage initiatives like CHI is fighting back against widespread destruction.