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Examples of damages

In this step we will work through some examples of damage that have affected archaeological sites.

There are a number of things that can cause damage to archaeological sites. Here we will look at some examples caused by looting, development, mining and agriculture.


In the context of cultural heritage, looting defines the act of illegally taking an artefact from an archaeological site. This can range from a simple removal of a piece of pottery while hiking to deliberately digging and removing objects from sites to sell or keep. Today, looting is a serious issue that can impact scientific and historical understanding, violate another’s cultural heritage, and detracts from someone’s ability to interact with the past. The destruction of archaeological resources by looters is an international crisis and threatens world’s cultural heritage.

Illegal excavations by the looters leave distinctive pits across the surface of an archaeological site. Such “looter’s pits” have no resemblance to the surface changes made by official, methodological archaeological work. Such pits can be identified by satellite imagery (Figures 1, 2, 3 and 4) and can be used effectively to keep an eye on sites where looting has been known to occur.

Seen by satellite, the walled ancient city of Dura Europos in Syria is pictured in 2011 in a good state of conservation, with orthogonal grid plans still visible and the earth largely undisturbed outside of a few carefully excavated archaeological trenches.
Figure 1: Dura-Europos-a Roman fortified city in Eastern Syria as seen on Google Earth in August 2011. Image © 2021 Maxar Technologies. (Click to expand)

Seen again by satellite in 2018, the site of Dura Europos is now covered entirely in thousands of looting pits -- seen as small dark craters -- cut into every ancient building foundation at the site.
Figure 2: Dura-Europos-a Roman fortified city in Eastern Syria as seen on Google Earth in January 2018. Image © 2021 Maxar Technologies. (Click to expand)

Seen by satellite in 2014, the temple of Bel is seen as a rectangular building in the centre of a square colonnaded sanctuary complex, with many of the columns preserved along with the walls of the temple building preserved to full height.
Figure 3: The Temple of Bel at Palmyra, Syria as seen on Google Earth in February 2014. Image © 2021 CNES/Airbus

Seen again by satellite in 2016, the central temple of Bel has been reduced to rubble, with only the entrance archway remaining standing in the centre of the complex - though much of the colonnaded enclosure still survives.
Figure 4: The Temple of Bel at Palmyra, Syria as seen on Google Earth in April 2016. Image © 2021 Maxar Technologies


There are some aspects of human development which are thought to be positive and progressive, such as construction and expansion of buildings and roads. However, these can threaten the security of cultural heritage. The formidable forces of unplanned development, rampant innovation, and heedless technical advance can dramatically alter the natural environment and archaeological landscape and magnify the scale of their destructive potential—a prehistoric site, or a historic building.

Through remote sensing it is possible to identify such threats which can endanger cultural heritage. In the figures below (Figures 5 and 6) one can see the encroachment of houses, buildings and roads within the periphery of well-known archaeological sites.

At the site of Jerash , Jordan, dense urban development envelops and in some areas is built over the site.
Figure 5: Jerash, Jordan as seen on Google Earth in November 2019. Image © 2021 CNES/Airbus

At Nineveh in Iraq, seen by satellite, much of the original extent of the ancient city is covered by modern farm land, but the mid-section of the site is completely covered by residential urban development and crossed by major roads.
Figure 6: Nineveh, Iraq as seen on Google Earth in December 2004. Image © 2021 Maxar Technologies


Another major threat that can be identified through satellite imagery is mining. In order to maximise profit and quick economic gain, often cultural heritage are put in to risk. In fact, examples of heritage lost to mining can be found on all continents. Below (Figures 7 and 8) are examples of increased mining activities and the rising threat to archaeological sites.

A section of the Eastern Desert in Egypt seen by satellite. An ancient riverbed surrounded by hills, stone foundations of ancient domestic structures can be seen in the hills and bordering the ancient banks, with no obvious signs of disturbance.
Figure 7: an area of the Eastern Desert, Egypt as seen Google Earth in December 2010, with small-scale ancient settlement visible. Image © 2021 Maxar Technologies.

The same section of desert seen in Figure 7, but eight years later industrial scale mining has heavily disturbed the surface, with massive scale earth displacement damaging many of the sites and destroying much of the environmental context.
Figure 8: the same area of the Eastern Desert, Egypt, now seen on Google Earth in July 2018, after mining has heavily disturbed the area. Image © 2021 Maxar Technologies.


Thousands of archaeological sites worldwide lie under the ploughzone. Agriculture, therefore, is a major threat to cultural heritage. Archaeological “tell” sites or mounds are often ploughed over and flattened out for the ease of cultivation. Such higher grounds are often the easiest target for farming as they provide arable topsoil and better drainage. Figures 9 and 10 show satellite images of the effect of agriculture on archaeology.

A tell site seen by satellite, with heavy mechanical ploughing evident on all sides. The steeper, higher central part of the tell has remained in tact, but patches of soil discolouration show that the modern ploughing activity has cut through much of the lower slopes of the mound.
Figure 9: Agriculture and ploughing affecting an archaeological site. Image © 2021 Maxar TechnologieCNES/Airbus

Soil discolouration in a mechanically ploughed field shows the location of an ancient site - probably a settlement - that has been completely ploughed through across its full surface extent.
Figure 10: An example of a ploughed-over site. Image © 2021 Maxar Technologies

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Endangered Archaeology: Using Remote Sensing to Protect Cultural Heritage

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