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SRHRL Past Projects: Cultural Heritage at Risk

Art Exhibit | Research | Project

ANCIENT HISTORY/MODERN DESTRUCTION: Using Science and Technology to Study Cultural Heritage Loss

About the Exhibit:
November 15, 2015 - February 16, 2016 
AAAS Art Gallery
1200 New York Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20005

Cultural heritage is the physical manifestation of a people’s history and forms an important part of their identity. Deliberate heritage destruction, which attempts to remove all traces of the past, is often used as a tool of ethnic and sectarian violence. Unfortunately, this type of damage is an ongoing part of the conflict in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere across the globe. It constitutes an established human rights violation. In addition, archaeological site looting during periods of social and political unrest causes extensive damage to ancient centers. Scientific methods and technological tools can be employed to document, investigate, and ultimately understand heritage loss in order to create more effective humanitarian and policy responses and to develop preventative measures. This exhibition highlighted cutting-edge scientific methods, new technologies, and current research projects that are underway to reveal this cultural tragedy.

ANCIENT HISTORY/MODERN DESTRUCTION was a partnership between AAAS, the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution


Satellite Imaging of Cultural Sites in Conflict: A Cautionary Note


Mosul, Iraq: Destruction of Nebi Yunis (Tomb of the Prophet Jonah)

Ancient History, Modern Destruction: Assessing the Current Status of Syria’s World Heritage Sites Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery
Report | Report (PDF)

Ancient History, Modern Destruction: Assessing the Current Status of Syria’s Tentative World Heritage Sites Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery
Report | Report (PDF)

High-Resolution Satellite Imagery and the Destruction of Cultural Artifacts in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan

Developing a Research Community and Capacity for the Study of Cultural Heritage in Conflict

Project Description | Research | News | Project Staff

The AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project was awarded a two-year grant of $199,876 from the United States National Science Foundation (NSF, Award No: 1439549) as a part of a collaborative research grant with the University of Pennsylvania and the Smithsonian Institution.

Project Description

Cultural heritage represents the physical manifestation of the culture and history of a social group or region and forms a major component of a people's sense of identity. Intentional destruction of cultural heritage during intrastate and ethnonationalist conflict is a well-known but rarely studied phenomenon often designed to erase the presence and history of a rival social or ethnic group. Recent cases of such destruction include the 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Iraq, and the 2012 destruction of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. Despite considerable scholarship about purposeful violations of civil and political rights during conflict, there is a general tendency to view damage to cultural heritage as an unfortunate collateral outcome, rather than as a deliberate tactic. Consequently, few studies have examined how damage to cultural heritage sites is linked to ethnic or sectarian violence. Understanding how heritage destruction is implicated in the trajectory of these conflicts will enable U.S. policymakers and other humanitarian agencies working in conflict zones to design more effective interventions.

This interdisciplinary project convened a working group consisting of subject matter experts in archaeology, anthropology, and other allied fields; specialists in conflict studies from political science, geography, and sociology; and methodological experts from the data sciences. Over the course of a two-year period, this research community developed common definitions and coding standards that will enable the future development of large-scale datasets documenting and quantifying the destruction of cultural heritage. In order to facilitate such a comparative study, there is a need to develop methods for integrating data about events, specific localities, historical trajectories, and social conditions that precipitate acute outbreaks of destructive violence, which includes damage to cultural heritage. The proposed coding standards were evaluated with a proof-of-concept case study based upon the current conflict in Syria. The completion of this test dataset aimed to establish best practices in coding cultural heritage destruction information as well as a case study on the relationship between sectarian violence and cultural heritage destruction. 

Click here for news and articles relating to the project.

Protecting ancient treasures from becoming casualties

Cultural site destruction in Syria

Syria's Heritage Destroyed by War

Secretary of State John Kerry: Threats to Cultural Heritage


Project Staff

Susan Wolfinbarger
Former Director
Geospatial Technologies Project

Jonathan Drake
Senior Program Associate
Geospatial Technologies Project

Eric Ashcroft
Former Senior Program Associate
Geospatial Technologies Project

Katharyn Hanson
Former AAAS Visiting Scholar
Geospatial Technologies Project

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