Oxford-led team train archaeologists to spot threats to sites in Middle East and Africa

Archaeologists, led by the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology, are to fly out to three bases in the Middle East and North Africa to train local professionals on how to identify and assess threats to cultural heritage sites, using aerial and satellite images.

The British Council in partnership with the UK government’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has awarded £1.6 million, as a Cultural Protection Fund project, to create a team from Oxford, Leicester and Durham Universities to work in the region training local archaeologists to protect archaeological sites.

The fund will pay for five new posts to coordinate the training programme for up to 20 archaeologists (100 in total) from five countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Tunisia) over the next three years. Intensive courses for each individual will last around three weeks, with help available from the training team thereafter in the following months or years. At training events in Amman, Tunis and Beirut, students, staff and professional archaeologists will learn how to interpret Google satellite imagery and aerial photographs to spot archaeological features and threats. They will find out how to acquire and analyse existing satellite data and air photo records, and manage digital records.

This latest tranche of funding for the EAMENA (Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa) allows them to build up their expertise in the countries for the online database of aerial, satellite and ground-observed information about archaeological sites in the region. Since it was set up in January 2015, they have recorded nearly 100,000 sensitive sites, most of which would otherwise have been undocumented. The training manuals and guidance notes for using the EAMENA database will be translated into Arabic, as well as Kurdish and Farsi, so that data can be inputted and accessed in the future by heritage professionals in those countries. The local knowledge and contacts will be useful for flagging up to local authorities the heritage value of some sensitive sites. It might mean that some can be avoided by those planning road or housing schemes, or archaeological surveys can carried out before such work begins.

Many archaeological sites face increasing threats from conflict, looting or the effects of urban expansion and agricultural development. The locally-trained archaeologists will learn how to apply the same methods developed by the EAMENA team in identifying sites such as Roman forts or prehistoric burial mounds from the air. They will put information on the database about the location and features of endangered sites, as well as assessments on the likely age, the scale and imminence of threats.

Professor Andrew Wilson, Principal Investigator of the project at Oxford, said: ‘We are delighted at being able to put the tools and strategies developed by the EAMENA project into the hands of those professionals who confront the real challenges of preservation of archaeological sites, in the face of both conflict and peacetime threats to their cultural heritage.’

Dr Robert Bewley, Director of the EAMENA project, added: ‘The Middle East and North African countries are home to some of the world's best preserved archaeological remains, from the earliest hominids, to the first complex agricultural societies, cities and empires. There are many UNESCO World Heritage Sites but also innumerable smaller-scale but well-preserved archaeological ruins. In addition to the targeted destruction by Daesh of iconic monuments, the region's cultural heritage is afflicted by looting, illicit trade in antiquities, erosion as a result of agriculture as well as damage from construction of dams, roads and expanding villages, towns and cities.’

Professor David Mattingly, from the University of Leicester, commented: ‘Capacity building is one of the most effective ways we can assist countries across the Middle East and North Africa deal with increasing threats to heritage. We have already begun this work for Libyan colleagues and the new grant will allow us to extend these crucial training programmes.’

Professor Graham Philip, from the University of Durham, said: ‘This is an opportunity to effect a step-change in the recording and documentation of the archaeological heritage of countries in the MENA region. My Durham colleagues and I look forward to bringing our knowledge of the archaeology of the region to the project, and to working in collaboration with our UK colleagues and local archaeologists to develop the skills and long-term strategies required at this critical time for cultural heritage of the region.’

Last October, the EAMENA team jointly organised an international conference to explore new approaches to monitor, protect and preserve the cultural heritage of all Iraq. It was the first time that a conference had been staged in the country to focus on preserving Iraqi heritage sites. One highlight was discussion about the destruction of heritage in the Iraqi city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces are currently engaged in a fierce battle with Daesh. Among those attending were archaeologists and heritage professionals from Mosul who had been displaced by the Daesh.

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