In August 2012, a group of Italian archaeologists discovered six rocky reliefs carved into the walls of an ancient Assyrian canal near the city of Faida in northern Iraq. Three other reliefs were discovered by a British archaeologist 40 years earlier, but fighting between the Kurds and the Iraqi government made excavation impossible. Armed conflict prevented work on the site for a second time, when ISIS advanced into neighboring Mosul in 2014 and the front line was just 16 miles away.
Monitoring Faida at the time of the site’s initial discovery in 1972 would have proved expensive, dangerous, and nearly impossible. The 2,700-year-old reliefs had magnificent archaeological value, but as is often the case in unstable regions of the world, archeology had to wait. In 2012, however, the team at the University of Udine in Italy had an addition to their toolbox: satellites.
Aerial imagery has been used to inform archeology since tethered hot air balloons lifted cameras into the air in the early years of the 20th century. Up high, it becomes much easier to locate, research and monitor archaeological sites. Images also have special value when these locations are located in difficult or hostile terrain. Public satellite imagery has now taken these advantages to new heights.
In the early 2000s, the US government began declassifying its collection of military satellite images collected as part of the CORONA spy program between 1960 and 1972. These images predated the use of modern intensive agricultural techniques, which meant that the archaeologists could – for the first time in a while – see sites before they had been damaged by agriculture. It also meant that they could cover vast geographic areas.
The arrival of tools like Google Earth in 2001 democratized access to satellite imagery with a free and affordable service. Archaeological teams often survive on small budgets. Open source imagery meant archaeologists could explore satellites without having to worry about high costs. NASA’s Landsat and European Union’s Copernicus programs now also provide free images.
“There are now vast amounts of open data satellite imagery that can be used for archaeology,” Stéphane Ourevitch, senior executive advisor at Copernicus, told The Daily Beast. “In one image, it is possible to detect the presence of buried structures, especially in periods of drought, thanks to the difference in the ‘color’ of the vegetation.”
Now, the proliferation of commercial satellite imagery is giving archaeologists access to images with a resolution of up to 50 centimeters. This allows them to identify much smaller details, such as the loot mounds left behind by looters. “Frequent pass” services also mean that specific locations can be updated every five days, on demand. Multispectral imaging also improved the analysis of blurry photos, revealing hidden features in the ground.
In Faida, the Italian team had already used satellites to identify more than 1,000 new historic sites in the region since 2012 – of which only 40 were previously known. Now the team could use satellites to monitor Faida’s specific location for any signs of damage.
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Using Google Earth, Simi and his colleagues noticed several threats encroaching on the land around the landforms: the construction of an aqueduct, an illegal excavation and a sprawling farm. “This location was in special danger because people realized it was something, but they didn’t know exactly what was there,” Francesca Simi, deputy director of the project, told The Daily Beast.
Then, in 2019, they decided to step in.
The team from the University of Udine discovered that the new aqueduct had already destroyed one of the precious reliefs. Another had been partially demolished to make way for a cattle shed. But it wasn’t too late for the others. Archaeologists alerted the local Kurdish government, which created a special buffer zone around the site to protect it from further destruction.
“This was a great achievement for us,” said Simi. “From a scientific point of view, we are now able to better understand the transformation of the landscape.”
Rock reliefs on the walls of an ancient Assyrian canal near the city of Faida in northern Iraq.
Kurdish-Italian Archaeological Project Faida/University of Udine
Urban sprawl around sites like Faida presents one of the greatest dangers to the archaeological heritage. But looting, dams, vandalism, agriculture and warfare also present persistent threats. “People think that behind the rocky reliefs there is a treasure, so they use hammers to try to open a secret gate to collect it,” Simi said. Fortunately, satellite imagery also helps archaeologists monitor these threats.
During several recent violent conflicts, including the Syrian Civil War and the Iraq War, archaeologists have used satellites to monitor the sites since the war prevented them from visiting in person. Sometimes military camps are built on ancient ruins. Trenches are dug through graves. And bombs explode craters in ancient sites, as seen in Tell Na’am, Syria.
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Bill Finlayson, a researcher at the University of Oxford, directs the collaborative project Endangered Archeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA), led by Oxford. His team has just paid thousands of dollars for a commercial satellite to make frequent passes over a classified Buddhist site in Afghanistan, which is at risk from a mining project in the area.
“It’s another case where, partly because of the nature of the site, it’s not being as protected as it could be,” Finlayson told The Daily Beast. “What we are trying to see is how much is being consumed by the ongoing mining problem.”
However, there is a lot the project can do. Archaeologists are often constrained in their ability to protect sites due to resources, government restrictions, and more. “We’re not some kind of emergency archeology service that parachutes in to rescue,” Finlayson said. “We pass the information on to people we think can do something, or would like to at least try to do something about it.”
EAMENA archaeologists feed all their satellite-acquired data into a public database. Anyone can access its 333,000 records covering 20 countries, which means local partners can also use it to enhance their own understanding of the sites. EAMENA even launched a free training course in English, Arabic, Farsi and French to help others learn the basics.
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Images acquired from satellites can, however, be tedious to search. The method also takes a long time to learn. One study attempted to teach a class of cultural heritage students at Dartmouth College through lecture and reading materials. Subsequent testing resulted in a 90 to 100 percent failure rate.
But artificial intelligence has raised some hopes for a way around this. “This is nothing too complicated in theory,” Finlayson said. “You are just looking at the change in different pixels in an image to see if they have changed or if they have stayed the same.” But, as is often the case with AI, archaeologists are struggling to expand its use beyond specific parameters and environments.
“You can’t just create [an AI program] and then apply it anywhere,” Finlayson said. “Probably what you’ve developed works very well for the staging area, but it may or may not work very well outside of it.” So while future innovation still needs work, existing satellite technology has transformed archeology forever. For many, it has become a priority in protecting cultural heritage for future generations.
After using satellites to identify and stop damage to Faida, Simi and his colleagues launched an educational project for the local community last year. They held a public meeting at the local heritage center and invited school children to look around.
“People came and started to understand,” Simi said. “They were extremely curious. And it’s so important because it’s their heritage, just 100 meters from their homes.”
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