In May 2015, the Dhamar Regional Museum in southwestern Yemen was destroyed in an airstrike by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition. The museum contained more than 12,000 archaeological objects, representing the history of an ancient center of Arab and Islamic culture.
Its loss is emblematic of the danger Yemen’s four-year-old civil war presents to the country’s rich material heritage. In response to the threat, the Yemeni General Organization of Antiquities and Museums and archaeologists in the United Kingdom have been working together since soon after the war started to build a database of archaeological sites in Yemen.
The database will form part of Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa, an ambitious project which is compiling satellite imagery and other sources into a single, larger, web-based database of archaeological sites from Mauritania to Iran. The project emphasizes the collection of images taken from the sky—a method known as aerial archaeology.
The project, known as EAMENA, covers 20 countries and 10 million square kilometers, says Robert Bewley, the project’s director. “It records sites, landscapes and monuments of any date and description.” Of the 252,000 entries already in the database, about 50,000 are from Yemen.
In Yemen, the project’s goal is to create as comprehensive a record as possible of the country’s ancient sites, not only as a historical record, but also to support archaeologists and to enable informed decisions about economic development once the war is over. At the Dhamar museum hit by the airstrike, antiquities officials have only been able to recover about 1,500 objects from the rubble.
“It is a valuable exercise in the protection of heritage, because a register of ancient sites—where they are, what they look like—enables them to be monitored,” said Robert Fletcher, of University College London, Doha. Fletcher is a co-founder of Crowded Desert and Origins of Doha and Qatar, projects on the archaeology of Qatar. (See a related article, “An Archaeology Project Connects Young Qataris to Their Past.”)