Satellite Images Don’t Lie

tags: ISIS, ancient Iraq artifacts

Stephen H. Savage works for Arizona State’s Institute for Humanities Research. He specializes in remote sensing & archaeology. His Ph.D. is in anthropology. 

The well-publicized destruction of archaeological sites and museum exhibits by ISIS has garnered worldwide condemnation. Sites like Nineveh, Hatra, and Mosul have been the subject of concerted efforts to destroy the past—and to help goad the United States into a third ground war in northern Iraq and Syria. Recently, we received some good news. It turns out that many of the objects that were destroyed in the Mosul Museum were reproductions; the originals are safely hidden in Baghdad. So perhaps things aren’t quite as bad as they appear?

Alas, the situation on the ground is even worse than you think. Destruction of archaeological sites has been an ongoing feature in virtually all the modern wars in the Middle East. Because of the way archaeological sites are used in military operations, there’s plenty of blame to spread around. And you’ve only been told about the famous sites—the ones that are mentioned in the Bible or that have long records of archaeological excavation and publication. But even on these sites, you haven’t heard the whole story.

The conflict is raging across one of the oldest human landscapes on Earth—the northern Fertile Crescent. This is one of the first regions in the world where agriculture, settled life, and complex society developed, and the modern landscape is densely spotted with ancient sites. Thanks to more than 50 years of fieldwork in the region, archaeologists have documented thousands of sites. And recent remote sensing work with declassified Corona spy satellite images has revealed thousands of additional places that appear to be archaeological sites as well.

I am an archaeologist, and I have worked in the Middle East for nearly 40 years; I specialize in satellite image analysis. In 2010 I was awarded a NASA Space Archaeology grant, and I began looking systematically at archaeological sites in Lebanon and Syria, using declassified Corona spy satellite data from the late 1960s to early 1970s, and recent Digital Globe images that anyone can see on Google Earth. And I haven’t liked what I’ve seen. I’ve made a detailed examination of several hundred sites that date from the Bronze Age through the classical periods, and about 10 percent of the sites I’ve seen have damage that’s clearly caused by military activity. I’ve seen surface-to-air missile batteries; I’ve seen armored vehicles dug in on sites; I’ve seen ammunition bunkers being built and subsequently covered over. I’ve seen all manner of things that make such sites legitimate military targets. The United States is currently engaged in bombing ISIS installations, and militia groups are currently attacking places where the Syrian regime is concentrated. A lot of these places are archaeological sites—because places that were strategically valuable in antiquity remain so. People at war have always sought the high ground, and archaeological tells (a mounded settlement, built up by long-term human habitation) usually offer the most commanding views, so it’s no surprise they’re occupied by military forces.

This creates a tricky ethical dilemma for me. What should I do when I see military presence at such sites? If I publish about it, would I assure that the sites would be bombed, thereby creating even more destruction than construction of the military facilities caused in the first place? Can I take it for granted that the U.S. military already knows about these places? Surely they have even better satellite imagery than I do. But the theater of war is a big place: Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq together are roughly the size of Texas. Archaeologists have rarely confronted these circumstances, and our standards of acceptable practice and ethnical behavior with remotely sensed data are still in development . The American Association for the Advancement of Science has recently published an online cautionary note, but its text is quite general and does not cover the situations I’m encountering. ...

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