TerraWatchers, UCSD, and ASOR CHI Partner to Monitor Archaeological Sites

Posted in: Archaeology, Archaeology in the News, ASOR, SHI
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The ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives Partner with TerraWatchers and the Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability at UCSD to Monitor Damage to Archaeological Sites

By: Stephen H. Savage, Center for Cyber-Archaeology & Sustainability, Qualcomm Institute, UC San Diego
Michael Danti, Academic Director, Cultural Heritage Initiatives, ASOR
Thomas Levy, Director, Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability, Qualcomm Institute, UC San Diego


Warfare has been raging almost continuously across some part of the Middle East for more than forty years. It has gone hand-in-hand with social and political revolutions in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, destabilizing the entire region and encouraging widespread looting and destruction of archaeological sites, museums, and portable cultural heritage. The deliberate looting and destruction of archaeological sites and museum objects by Daesh has been widely reported by western media, and widely condemned by political leaders and academics. Last August the world watched in sorrow as the Temple of Bel at Palmyra was blown up; before that, we witnessed the deliberate destruction of priceless materials from the Mosul Museum. Before that, we were outraged by the extent of looting that took place at the Classical period site at Apamea, Syria. As of March 16, 2016, all six of Syria’s archaeological sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list have been damaged or destroyed (Henderson 2016).

The conflict is raging across one of the oldest human landscapes on Earth—the northern Fertile Crescent. This is one of the first regions in the world where agriculture, settled life, and complex society developed, and the modern landscape is densely spotted with ancient sites. Thousands of archaeological tells lie in the most intensively fought over regions; it seems as if every other hilltop contains archaeological material, and these are simply in the way of military activity. The United States, its coalition partners, and Russia are currently engaged in bombing Daesh and other militia groups’ installations, and militias are currently attacking places where the Syrian regime is concentrated. Many of these places are archaeological sites—because places that were strategically valuable in antiquity remain so. People at war have always sought the high ground, and archaeological tells usually offer the most commanding views, so it’s no surprise they’re occupied by military forces, where they often become foci of major battles (Savage 2015).

Destruction of archaeological sites through looting, military occupation, and bombing has been carried out by almost all the various groups involved in the war. In a recent study, Casana (2015:150) found that “21% of sites looted in ISIS areas and 16.5% in Syrian regime areas, compared with 28% and 27% in Kurdish and opposition-held areas respectively.”

To assist in dealing with this crisis, the American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI) monitors and evaluates the cultural heritage situation in Syria and ISIL-occupied Iraq, engages in conflict-zone preservation and mitigation projects, and conducts outreach at the international level for a wide range of governmental and non-governmental audiences. The program was formed in August 2014 through the award of a cooperative agreement to ASOR by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Bureau of Near East Affairs. Additional information is available on the CHI website.

In monitoring the cultural heritage situation, the CHI uses a combination of sources to identify, verify, and assess damage incidents and the state of cultural assets more generally. Data sources include in-country accounts, open-source information, and analyses of high-resolution satellite imagery. In CHI’s first year, the program documented over 800 cultural heritage incidents in the conflict zone, including damage caused by archaeological looting, combat damage, deliberate destruction, vandalism, and unregulated development. Large numbers of incidents were either identified through assessments of satellite imagery or were identified through open-source and in-country reports and verified and assessed using satellite imagery. The intensity of damage on a weekly basis and the sheer number of known heritage sites requiring monitoring make crowdsourcing a highly effective solution for initial identification of damage and its assessment. The CHI has produced a series of monthly articles for the public, documenting the loss of Near Eastern cultural heritage, finding that “While all major combatants and populations are linked to the destruction, non-state Jihadi-Salafi groups such as ISIL, Al Qaeda-affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamist extremists are by far the most brazen and egregious offenders with overt policies of destroying and liquidating cultural assets to support terrorism and to conduct cultural cleansing on a scale and intensity tantamount to a global war on culture” (Danti 2015:132).

The ASOR CHI has taken on the task of monitoring thousands of archaeological sites. It is a mammoth undertaking, and resources are stretched. “When we approached ASOR about how many people were regularly analyzing satellite images for evidence of destruction at archaeological sites in the region, we were told that ASOR had only two GIS experts tasked with that effort, even though hundreds more are needed,” said UC San Diego archaeologist and anthropology professor Thomas E. Levy (who also chairs ASOR’s Committee on Archaeological Policy).

This is clearly a task where hundreds of observers are needed. So ASOR has partnered with UC San Diego’s new Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability (CCAS) and the TerraWatchers web portal to carry out a joint online mission to monitor archaeological sited located in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Through a new “Catalyst” grant from the UC Office of the President – to document and analyze At-Risk Cultural Heritage in the Digital Humanities—CCAS and ASOR will promote ‘citizen science’ and crowd-sourcing as an ideal solution to the manpower problem.

Figure 1. The TerraWatchers front page.

The TerraWatchers Web Portal

Contreras and Brodie (2010) conducted an examination of archaeological sites in Jordan with Google Earth, and concluded that it was a useful tool for identifying looting. TerraWatchers is a web-based application (figure 1) that provides a crowd-sourced satellite image analysis platform built on the Google Maps© API, and using base maps of satellite imagery provided by Google and Digital Globe. The Google Maps satellite base layer is the same in Google Earth, so a web-based application that allowed crowdsourced examination of sites was clearly feasible, and TerraWatchers was built in 2015. A TerraWatchers mission can be designed around any task where a set of locations and observation classes can be identified from satellite imagery. Registered users can examine the region around a place of interest and tag satellite images through an online point digitizing routine that stores the information in a central database. Savage, the author of TerraWatchers, designed the application to be generic, so that many different types of missions could be created and operated with the software. But it turns out to be ideal for examining the land on and around known archaeological sites for visible damage caused by looting and conflict. A TerraWatchers mission can be public, where anybody can register with the application and make observations, or private, where a restricted group of observers is recruited. An initial pilot study focused on the impact of military activity and looting on archaeological sites in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, whose locations have been widely published (figure 1). “We recruited 60 volunteers last summer from GISCorps, a non-profit group of some 4,000 volunteer experts in GIS, similar to Médecins Sans Frontières for doctors,” explained Savage. “Those GIS volunteers pored through satellite imagery of 2,593 sites in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq looking for by-products of military activity, and annotating the images with symbols for 9 different types of damage from looting to bomb craters.” After nearly two months, the volunteers randomly visited 2,551 of the 2,593 sites, with an average of about 3.7 visits per site. We were able to cover more than 98% of the sites in the mission’s dataset during the two months of the mission’s initial operation. Among other observations, volunteers recorded:

  • 213 cases of “Looting” on/near 101 sites (3.959% of sites visited) (figure 2).
  • 46 cases of “Air Defense” on/near 26 sites (1.019% of sites visited) (figure 3).
  • 191 cases of “Revetment/Berm” on/near 110 sites (4.312% of sites visited).
  • 42 cases of “Military Hardware” on/near 24 sites (0.941% of sites visited).
  • 52 cases of “Military Trench” on/near 41 sites (1.607% of sites visited).
  • 38 cases of “Bunker/Shelter” on/near 26 sites (1.019% of sites visited).
  • 16 cases of “Other Structure” on/near 15 sites (0.588% of sites visited).
  • 26 cases of “Impact Crater” on/near 19 sites (0.745% of sites visited).

Figure 2. Distribution of looted archaeological sites identified in the pilot mission.

Figure 3. The pilot mission confirmed air defense installations on or near these archaeological sites.

The ASOR CHI TerraWatchers Project

In a joint project with the ASOR-CHI, UC San Diego’s Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability and TerraWatchers will recruit at least 100 students across four University of California campuses to analyze satellite imagery of the three countries. It is a greatly expanded version of the TerraWatchers pilot study, where student volunteers will be asked to monitor fourteen different types of activity on nearly 11,000 archaeological site locations provided by the ASOR CHI. Most of the sites provided by ASOR are not well-known; as a result, the new mission is private. We will recruit a restricted group of about 100 student volunteers from UC San Diego and its three UC partner campuses in the ARCH project: UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Merced. Savage and UC San Diego undergraduate Andrew Johnson, who is majoring in Archaeology, will visit all three campuses to conduct in-depth training workshops for students and staff working in the labs of co-principal investigators on Levy’s At-Risk Cultural Heritage in the Digital Humanities project: Willeke Wendrich (UCLA), Benjamin Porter (UC Berkeley), and Nicola Lercari (UC Merced). The new ASOR initiative is a private mission because we are looking at sites whose locations are not widely known or published, and if we were to let everyone have access, it could encourage more damage of the kind we are trying to prevent.

The TerraWatchers project will provide preliminary satellite assessments of at-risk cultural sites across Syria and Iraq for further analysis by ASOR CHI’s Geospatial Initiatives team, headed by Project Manager Dr. Susan Penacho. ASOR CHI will in turn provide feedback to TerraWatchers to continue to adapt its training program. Following ASOR CHI assessment, the TerraWatchers observations will be added to ASOR CHI’s database system and will be presented to the U.S. Department of State and other partners and stakeholders in the ASOR CHI Weekly Report series and Special Report series. The TerraWatchers initiative is providing crucial support and baseline data that will enable ASOR CHI and other cultural heritage programs to better preserve and protect cultural assets in the conflict zone.

Initial Results

The collaborative mission has been operating for about a month, initially with students from Levy’s undergraduate class on “Archaeology, Anthropology and the Bible,” and five graduate students in his Levantine and Cyber-Archaeology Lab. Students have been asked to contribute 40 hours of observation time, and to date they have made 7,758 visits to 5,445 of 10,941 sites—49.767% of the sites have been examined at least once (figure 4). So far they have observed:

Figure 4. Distribution of sites already examined by Levy’s students.

  • 466 instances (246 confirmed) of “Looting/Illegal Excavation” on/near 302 sites (5.546%).
  • 2 instances (2 confirmed) of “Tunneling into Tells” on/near 2 sites (0.037%).
  • 1,488 instances (238 confirmed) of “Modern Settlement on Site” on/near 1,233 sites (22.645%).
  • 272 instances (61 confirmed) of “Modern Burials” on/near 232 sites (4.261%).
  • 1 instance (1 confirmed) of “Refugee Camp/Structure Reuse” on/near 1 sites (0.018%).
  • 637 instances (24 confirmed) of “Groves/Orchard on Site” on/near 571 sites (10.487%).
  • 443 instances (101 confirmed) of “Erosion” on/near 402 sites (7.383%).
  • 74 instances (74 confirmed) of “Mining/Quarrying” on/near 67 sites (1.230%).
  • 10 instances (10 confirmed) of “Road Work” on/near 10 sites (0.184%).
  • 103 instances (103 confirmed) of “Bulldozing” on/near 87 sites (1.598%).
  • 1 instances (0 confirmed) of “Oil Fields” on/near 1 sites (0.018%).
  • 71 instances (71 confirmed) of “Military Earthworks” on/near 53 sites (0.973%).
  • 118 instances (118 confirmed) of “Military Construction” on/near 70 sites (1.286%).
  • 30 instances (30 confirmed) of “Explosive Damage” on/near 23 sites (0.422%).

Figure 5. Distribution of observations made to date by Levy’s students.

As students pore over satellite images for signs of 14 different variables (figure 5), the findings will be circulated back to ASOR and the State Department once all the observations are confirmed through inspection by Savage and Andrew Johnson (a student of Levy’s, who has been specially trained in TerraWatchers validation procedures). “TerraWatchers harnesses the power of crowdsourcing for a really good purpose,” said Levy. “In the past, for example, the ASOR CHI has focused much of its efforts on individual sites such as Palmyra [recently retaken by Syrian government troops backed by Russian airstrikes after 10 months of occupation by Islamic State]. But crowdsourcing will provide more clues to what is happening across the region, hopefully raising awareness of the need for a multinational approach to safeguarding these ancient sites.”

References Cited:

Casana, Jesse (2015). “Satellite Imagery-based Analysis of Archaeological Looting in Syria”. Near Eastern Archaeology 78 (3). American Schools of Oriental Research: 142–52. doi:10.5615/neareastarch.78.3.0142.

Contreras, D. and Brodie, N. (2010). “Quantifying destruction: An evaluation of the utility of publicly-available satellite imagery for investigating looting of archaeological sites in Jordan”. Journal of Field Archaeology (35): 101-114.

Danti, Michael D. (2015). “Ground-based Observations of Cultural Heritage Incidents in Syria and Iraq”. Near Eastern Archaeology 78 (3). American Schools of Oriental Research: 132–41. doi:10.5615/neareastarch.78.3.0132.

Henderson, Emma (2016). “Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage Sites all damaged or destroyed during civil war: Aleppo’s famous Umayyad Mosque complex badly hit, with 11th century minaret now ruined.” The Independent, 16 March, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syrias-six-unesco-world-heritage-sites-all-damaged-or-destroyed-during-civil-war-a6934026.html. Accessed March 26, 2016.

Savage, Stephen H. (2015).            “Satellite Images Don’t Lie: What it’s like to be an archaeologist watching ISIS and other groups destroy important sites in the Middle East.” Slate. March 31, 2015. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/03/satellite_images_show_isis_other_groups_destroying_archaeological_sites.single.html?wp_login_redirect=0.


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1 Comments for : TerraWatchers, UCSD, and ASOR CHI Partner to Monitor Archaeological Sites
  1. Pingback: TerraWatchers, UCSD, and ASOR CHI Partner to Monitor Archaeological Sites — The ASOR Blog | Talmidimblogging

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