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Aerial Archaeology Offers New Insights Into Ancient Sites

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.”)

Dhamar Regional Museum before it was hit by an airstrike. Its destruction is emblematic of the threat Yemen’s continuing civil war poses to cultural heritage sites (Photo: AIYS).

Spy Planes and Oil Companies

The Endangered Archaeology project’s database is a compilation of images taken by satellites, conventional airplanes and high-altitude spy planes since around the middle of the last century. Besides supporting heritage preservation, Fletcher says, there is value to archaeologists in having access to a big database of aerial and satellite photography of the Middle East and North Africa region, to enable theories to be tested.

The abundance of aerial photography of the region represents an unused resource for archaeologists, Fletcher says. The problem is getting access to it.

“There is an awful lot out there, but you have to be persistent and determined to get it,” Fletcher said. Specifically, aerial photographs taken by foreign air forces and oil companies, taken from the 1930s onwards, remain undiscovered by researchers because they lie behind the locked doors of national and corporate archives.

The Yemen data will be presented later this year as a distinct project, titled Yemen Heritage Management Platform, tailored for the needs of the country’s General Organization of Antiquities and Museums.

“Archaeological sites across the Middle East and North Africa,” Bewley and others wrote in a paper introducing the project, “are at risk from a range of threats: intensification of agriculture; population growth and the concomitant expansion of villages, towns and cities; industrial developments, dam, and road building; looting and the illicit traffic of artefacts; warfare and deliberate and targeted destruction of heritage for religious or ideological reasons.”

In Yemen, the greatest threat to ancient sites is damage caused by military action, as the case of the Dhamar Regional Museum shows.

In contrast to Syria and Iraq, where Islamic extremists deliberately destroyed archaeological sites, “In Yemen we are not seeing the ideological destruction of ancient sites, or a great increase in looting since the war started,” says Michael Fradley, a researcher and a research assistant in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

On the other hand, in a richer country such as Oman, economic development is the main threat to ancient sites, Fradley said. The relatively poor economic development of Yemen has had the unintended effect of limiting this kind of destruction.

Archaeologists are collecting and studying satellite photos like this one of Yemen to discover previously undetected ancient sites (Photo: EAMENA).

Discovering New Sites

Most of the information in the Endangered Archaeology project’s database is satellite imagery of the kind that is freely available on Google Earth. The images were typically originally collected by spy satellites, now declassified.

“Every day we are scrolling through pages of satellite imagery, kilometer by kilometer, looking at tracts of land and making interpretations,” Bewley said.

For example, one of the project’s researchers found in satellite imagery evidence of a 15th or 16th century fort on the coast of Yemen near the border with Saudi Arabia which was previously unknown to archaeologists.

The images clearly showed a square fort with two towers at opposite corners. The picture taken first, in 2011, showed informal human occupation at the site. By 2017, the imagery shows the site occupied by military forces, and signs of airstrikes. “Not totally destroyed, but badly damaged,” Bewley said.

The discovery was made by a researcher sitting at a desk in England, not by an archaeologist working in the traditional way—in the field, under a hot sun. “Archaeologists have not been able to work in Yemen since about 2011,” Fradley said.

In addition to building a database of ancient sites, the Endangered Archaeology project trains heritage professionals in countries in the Arab region in how to use satellite imagery in archaeology, heritage preservation and economic development.

The project’s database works on an open-source basis. “That means it is not commercial,” Bewley says. “We’re not selling this information. Any bona fide student, archaeologist, historian or geographer can get access to all of it.”

The informal web-surfer browsing the project’s site will only see a selection of images from the entire data set. For full access, the researcher must apply to the project. “We are sensitive that this data does not belong to us, but equally we want people to know about it,” Bewley said.


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