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Satellite Imaging of Cultural Sites in Conflict: A Cautionary Note

Visual data about cultural heritage sites within conflict zones in near real-time has become possible with new technology, particularly satellite imagery. Sensitive information can result from analysis of publically accessible high-resolution commercial products. Researchers and others using this type of information-gathering in sensitive and volatile situations, such as the current conflict in Iraq, face ethical questions related to the public disclosure of such information. They must also consider the technical limitations of satellite technology in analysis.

In order to address these concerns in other sensitive settings, the humanitarian community has established a number of ethical guidelines for action in conflict environments. Foremost among these standards is the Sphere Project’s Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. Following these guidelines, all parties should consider the following questions at a minimum, particularly concerning cultural site analysis in Iraq, and when weighing the impact of disclosing research findings:

  • “What does the affected population gain by our activities?”
  • “What might be the unintended negative consequences of our activities for people’s security, and how can we avoid or minimise these consequences?”
  • “Do the activities take into consideration possible protection threats facing the affected population? Might they undermine people’s own efforts to protect themselves?”
  • “Could the activities inadvertently empower or strengthen the position of armed groups or other actors?” 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also noted that:

  •  “Protection actors … must analyse the different potential risks linked to the collection, sharing or public display of the information and adapt the way they collect, manage and publicly release the information accordingly.”
  • “Protection actors should be explicit as to the level of reliability and accuracy of information they use or share.”

For these reasons, the limitations of the technology must be communicated clearly. High-resolution satellite imagery has a maximum resolution of 30cm per pixel, thus the smallest object visible must be 30cm by 30cm; to be recognizable it must be significantly larger. Objects that do not meet this size requirement may appear undamaged in satellite imagery. Moreover, portions of sites may be under cover, rendering them invisible to satellites. Consequently, reports of damage may be unverifiable using satellite technology alone.

Taking into account these considerations, extreme caution is urged when using satellite imagery to corroborate on-the-ground or media-reported damage to cultural heritage sites.

For further reading:



Susan R. Wolfinbarger, Ph.D. - AAAS


Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania Museum

Katharyn A. Hanson, Ph.D. - University of Pennsylvania The British Institute for the Study of Iraq
Richard M. Leventhal, Ph.D. - University of Pennsylvania The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TAARII)
Brian I. Daniels, Ph.D. - University of Pennsylvania  
Salam Al-Kuntar, Ph.D. - Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University  
Eleanor Robson, Ph.D. - University College London  
Abdulamir al-Hamdani - The State University of New York at Stony Brook  
Assaad Seif, Ph.D. - Directorate-General of Antiquities, Ministry of Culture, Lebanon  
Lawrence Rothfield, Ph.D. - University of Chicago  
Fiona Rose-Greenland, Ph.D. - University of Chicago  
Peter Wien, Ph.D. - University of Maryland, College Park, President of TAARII  
Susan Kane, Ph.D. - Oberlin College  
Katharine Woodhouse-Beyer, Ph.D. - Rutgers University  
Reinhard Bernbeck, Ph.D. - Freie Universität Berlin  


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1439549. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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