Race to map the world’s most sensitive archaeological sites before they disappear

19 February 2015

Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa.

The archaeological heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, which is of international significance for all periods, is under increasing threat from massive and sustained population explosion, agricultural development, urban expansion, warfare, and looting.

To address this situation, a new project has been launched at Oxford and Leicester Universities, funded by the Arcadia Fund. The project uses satellite imagery and aerial photos to identify, record and monitor the most endangered, and often undocumented, archaeological sites across the Middle East and North Africa. Nearly all the archaeological remains are made of stone or earth and are visible from the air. These include tombs, settlements, forts, towns, cities, and field and irrigation systems of all periods from prehistory to the twentieth century.  Many of the countries are currently inaccessible on the ground due to ongoing conflicts. Recent work in Jordan by Professor David Kennedy and Dr Robert Bewley has shown the scale and intensity of development, and that the methodology works.

The project leader Dr Robert Bewley says: ‘This exciting project is very timely as the threats to the region’s most important archaeological sites are increasing at an unprecedented pace and the situation is only going to become more critical if we don’t act now.’

The research team estimates that across the Middle East and North Africa there could be as many as 3-5 million archaeological sites, many of which are under immediate threat, and even more are likely to become endangered in the future. Information about the historical context and condition of each of the sensitive sites will be made available in an open-access database. The information can then be used by everyone, but especially by local archaeologists and volunteers in each of the countries.

Where possible, the project will cooperate with local authorities responsible for the protection of sites, Departments of Antiquities or similar agencies. It is hoped that through the project, a network of local ‘wardens’ will be created to manage and preserve the landscape and sensitive sites.

Professor Andrew Wilson, the project’s Principal Investigator, said: ‘The project will provide tools and strategies for the future conservation and management of threatened heritage, both individual sites and entire archaeological landscapes. This region contains the world’s richest concentration of significant archaeological remains spanning prehistory, the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Islamic empires.’

The project’s website http:ea.arch.ox.ac.uk will be available next month and the database with images and contextual information will follow later in the year.

For more information, contact the University of News Office on +44 (0)1865 280534 or email: [email protected]

Notes to Editors:

 We have lots of images available with captions on request.

  • The two -year project was awarded just over £1,200,000 by the Arcadia Fund. Arcadia is a charitable fund supporting charities and scholarly institutions that preserve cultural heritage and the environment. It also gives grants that promote open access to information. Since 2002, Arcadia has awarded more than $330 million to projects around the world. See: http://www.arcadiafund.org.uk/about-arcadia/about-arcadia.aspx
  • Professor Andrew Wilson, Head of the School of Archaeology at Oxford University and Professor of the Roman Empire played a fundamental part in the development of the project and the grant proposal. Professor Wilson has worked extensively in the region but especially Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Turkey.
  • Project leader Dr Robert Bewley, from the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology, has been co-director of Aerial Archaeology in Jordan project since 1998. He is a former Inspector of Ancient Monuments, and former Head of Aerial Survey for English Heritage and his last job was as Director of Operations at the Heritage Lottery Fund. The research team has 10 staff with a combination of post-doctoral researchers and research assistants, as well as administrative and IT support.
  • Work to identify sites and threats in North Africa will be carried out principally at Leicester University, under the direction of Professor David Mattingly, Professor of Roman Archaeology, who has worked extensively in Libya, Tunisia, Jordan and Italy.
  • The Endangered Archaeology project owes its origins to APAAME (Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East), a long-term research project directed by Dr Robert Bewley, from the University of Oxford, and Professor David Kennedy from the University of Western Australia. It transferred from Australia to the University of Oxford in 2014. For more about APAAME, see http://www.apaame.org/