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Heritage protection

Exploring how heritage protection uses remote sensing.

Remote sensing is also an excellent tool for monitoring archaeological sites and helping to protect our heritage. Archaeology faces several major challenges due to the accelerating pace of economic development over the last fifty years, as this has changed the nature of the land surface in many areas.


One of the most serious threats comes from agriculture with, for example, modern deep ploughs causing serious damage to archaeological remains that may have lain undisturbed under farmland for centuries, while modern irrigation is allowing entirely new areas to be cultivated.

Samarra agricultural expansion Agricultural expansion in and around the UNESCO World Heritage site of Samarra. The green patches are areas of vegetation. Data courtesy of the USGS and ESA (background NDVI plot) and Alastair Northedge (site boundaries).


Urban expansion, such as the construction of new buildings and roads as well as larger infrastructure such as airports and ports, is another major threat to archaeology. Projects and processes like these can be monitored and assessed using remote sensing. The ability to compare imagery from different dates is especially valuable, allowing us to assess how expansion has caused disturbances in the past, and to identify future threats.

Nineveh urban expansion Urban expansion in and around the ancient city of Nineveh. Courtesy of the USGS and ESA.


Archaeological heritage is often damaged or destroyed during conflict – either as unintended collateral damage, or intentionally as a means of attacking or undermining an opponent’s cultural identity or ideology. Remote sensing can be used to keep track of damage to sites in conflict areas where fieldwork would be impossible.

Qahira Castle destroyed in recent conflict Qahira Castle in Yemen, destroyed by an air strike during the recent conflict. Google Earth images © 2022 Maxar Technologies.


The illegal looting of artefacts from archaeological sites is another major threat that can be monitored, studied, and even combatted thanks to remote sensing. While it is not feasible to guard every possible target site from looters on the ground, satellite imagery can help us to make assessments of where and how to prioritise protection efforts.

Dur Europos looting Dura Europos, Syria, was systematically looted systematically throughout the Syrian conflict. Google Earth images © 2022 Maxar Technologies.

What is threatening archaeological sites in the area you live or are interested in? Could remote sensing help? If you are interested in remote sensing and heritage protection, do check out our other course if you have not already done so! You can find links to it in Step 1.1.
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Advanced Archaeological Remote Sensing: Site Prospection, Landscape Archaeology and Heritage Protection in the Middle East and North Africa

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