As War Rages, Archaeologist Uses Satellites to Protect Ancient Sites in Syria, Iraq

As War Rages, Archaeologist Uses Satellites to Protect Ancient Sites in Syria, Iraq

Assistant Professor Scott Branting, an archaeologist, uses satellite imagery to track the destruction of ancient sites in Syria and northern Iraq.

University of Central Florida archaeologist Scott Branting has gotten his hands dirty on plenty of digs, but some of his most important work now involves satellites instead of shovels.

Since 2014, Branting has been a principal investigator on a U.S. Department of State project meant to track damage to cultural-heritage sites in war-torn Syria and northern Iraq. It’s a monumental task documenting wanton destruction of ancient sites – some of them thousands of years old – by fighters from the Islamic State and other forces.

“It’s horrific and it’s widespread. Cultural heritage has been specifically targeted – it’s not just collateral damage and not just by the Islamic State,” Branting said. “You look at imagery of Aleppo [Syria] and there are whole blocks that have been leveled by barrel bombs that were sent out of helicopters by [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad forces. You have Islamic State placing explosives in cultural heritage sites and blowing them up so they can create videos for marketing purposes.”

The ancient Citadel of Aleppo, Syria, shown in 2010 (top) and flanked by bomb craters in 2016.

Branting, an assistant professor in the College of Sciences’ Department of Anthropology, works with a team from the American Schools of Oriental Research. In 2014, the State Department accepted a proposal to collaborate with ASOR to document, protect and preserve cultural-heritage sites in Syria. The project soon expanded to include northern Iraq.

Branting and his team are doing that by melding ancient history with cutting-edge science. They’re examining high-resolution photos taken by satellites to document sites’ current conditions and monitor them for damage.

Branting, who came to UCF from the University of Chicago in 2015, has worked with satellite imagery for years, but obtaining the data from private vendors is expensive for researchers. ASOR is able to scrutinize huge volumes of photos taken from space through its relationship with the State Department. The images are typically very recent, some from the day before. And the State Department also has enough influence to request that satellites be tasked with photographing particular areas.

What they’ve seen is disturbing: The ancient Citadel in Aleppo surrounded by bomb craters. The columns of the Tetrapylon toppled and a portion of the façade of the ancient Roman theater destroyed by ISIS in the desert city of Palmyra, Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In Palmyra, Syria, the Tetrapylon in December 2016 (top) and with toppled columns a few weeks later in January 2017.

ASOR and Branting have the mission of sounding the alarm about the destruction. But they’re also documenting the sites’ pre-war condition so that “cultural heritage first-responders” can be better prepared to reconstruct or preserve what’s left once the conflict subsides.

The work is important to the future economic solvency of these regions, as archaeological tourism is a significant source of money for governments and residents.

At the same time, there’s a clear national security element to the organization’s mission. While ISIS claims to destroy pre-Islamic sites because it considers them heretical, many sites have been looted of valuable antiquities. For instance, recent satellite images of the nearly 5,000-year-old city of Mari in eastern Syria show the archaeological site pockmarked by hundreds of pits dug by looters. Antiquities sold on the black market have been used to purchase munitions in Syria and fund insurgents in Iraq.

The city of Mari archaeological site in Syria in 2012 (top) and in 2016 pockmarked by pits dug by looters.

The State Department has asked ASOR to study how the antiquities are being removed and the black market trade routes where they’re being sold. The information could also be used for future war-crimes prosecution. Information from the group’s reports has made its way into White House intelligence briefings, Branting said.

“The Department of State wanted to have independent streams of information about this,” Branting said. “The military and other intelligence agencies collect information, but it’s definitely not a top priority for them. They wanted a partner who knew what they were doing, who could adequately look at the cultural heritage and understand its importance.”

ASOR has gathered information about well-known sites such as Palmyra, but also built a database of about 6,000 lower-profile sites in Syria and another 6,000 in northern Iraq. A byproduct of their work is that imagery in the database likely includes formerly unknown sites, or some known but unexplored sites, that could offer years of postwar study for archeologists.

Branting isn’t daunted by the idea of dealing with sites ravaged by war.

“Archeology is constantly dealing with sites that are falling apart, from hundreds or thousands of years ago,” he said. “It’s a question of what’s still left, what can be preserved and what information from the past can be salvaged.”