By Robert Bewley
Conservation image

The development of the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa Project (EAMENA) was the result of conflicts in the region, particularly from 2013 onward. The media’s primary focus was, rightly, on the humanitarian impact of these conflicts. However, reports of looting and the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage, with propaganda produced by the followers of Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, elevated this crisis onto the world stage.

In response, the Arcadia Fund agreed to grant-aid a project to rapidly document archaeological sites in the region. Previous survey work by many of EAMENA’s cofounders—especially Professors David Kennedy, David Mattingly, Graham Philip, and Andrew Wilson—had demonstrated the increased pace of change in the region. A rapid rise in the region’s population was accelerating the demand for land, water, and food; this was having a devastating impact on the landscapes, seriously affecting important archaeological sites. A historical parallel to this was the rapid intensification of agriculture in Britain and continental Europe after 1945, leading to huge losses of archaeological landscapes.

The EAMENA Project

The EAMENA project began work in January 2015 with the aim of improving conservation of cultural heritage by providing reliable information for making decisions, employing a standardized online inventory (the EAMENA database) for use by national agencies in the Middle East and North Africa. The EAMENA project covers twenty countries from Mauritania in the west to Iran in the east, each with a variety of recording systems, nationally and regionally. The project has been designed both to assess threats to archaeological sites in the region and to document previously unrecorded sites, in a database developed for use by the national agencies responsible for protection of sites.

There are many obstacles to creating national inventories, including inertia caused by a lack of money and the attitude that “what you don’t know doesn’t concern you.” This attitude is common among many who lack knowledge of the importance and even the possible economic benefits of cultural heritage, the protection of which remains a low governmental priority in parts of the region. And because archaeology is regionally synonymous with excavation, there is a need to promote awareness of remote sensing, an aspect of archaeology not taught in the majority of the region’s universities. Another obstacle is the absence of the principle that the “polluter or developer pays,” whereby, for instance, a company building a road would commission an impact study to determine if any archaeological sites would be affected and then include these expenses in the project cost. Widely followed in Europe and North America, this principle is not yet common in the Middle East and North Africa, although there are signs of change. All these factors increase the importance of archaeologists making the case for the preservation and documentation of not only the honeypot visitor attractions but also the sites that exist beyond the cities, castles, and temples.

Archaeological sites throughout the region face a range of threats, including intensification of agriculture; population growth and the concomitant expansion of villages, towns, and cities; industrial developments such as dam and road building; looting and the illicit trafficking of artifacts; and warfare and the deliberate destruction of heritage for religious or ideological reasons. Given these circumstances—and given that we now have the technology and expertise to undertake the effort—the time is ripe for conducting a rapid documentation of sites across the region.


The vast majority of the sites examined by EAMENA have not been previously recorded and are largely unknown to authorities in the countries concerned. Freely available satellite imagery (from Google Earth and Bing Maps) makes this project feasible. Satellite and aerial imagery is especially important for those countries where field visits are impossible or severely restricted, or where areas are too remote.

The EAMENA documentation process begins with an examination and interpretation of satellite imagery and aerial photographs, and an assessment of previously published archaeological work or surveys. To be useful, these interpretations must be systematically recorded. From the beginning, the EAMENA project adopted the Arches data management platform, designed for use in the heritage sphere and developed by the Getty Conservation Institute and the World Monuments Fund. As with any software, customization to meet specific needs is necessary. In addition to being purpose built for creating heritage inventories, what attracted us to Arches was that it was open source and web-based, and that it has the all-important capability of producing reports based on analysis of the database. We developed the right models for archaeological interpretations and threat assessments, and we created our own standard terminologies to ensure valid and consistent data entry by various record creators; this is essential for accurate data input, and it facilitates searching. The EAMENA database and its reference data have been fully translated into Modern Standard Arabic, with local variants also being recorded (and we have been asked to create French and Farsi versions). The EAMENA team has implemented a number of front- and back-end project-specific improvements.

Conservation image

In spring 2017 a fully online and public version of the database was launched. The database, which can be accessed via the EAMENA website, currently contains over two hundred thousand records of archaeological sites. Users can search for well-known sites, such as Petra in Jordan or St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, or by site type—for instance, Roman “fortified farms” in Libya. For the security of less well-known sites, detailed information and geographical location are restricted from the general public. Greater access is granted to a number of heritage professionals and academics. An online registration form to allow researchers and heritage specialists to register for full access is being developed.


Although the project has examined imagery for about eight hundred thousand square kilometers across fourteen countries, this is only 6 percent of the region, which covers 13.25 million square kilometers.

Of the more than two hundred thousand sites recorded, initial analysis of a sample of the site interpretations (site type in our database) shows that burial features (49 percent) are thus far the most commonly recorded feature, with enclosures (20 percent), settlements (18 percent), and buildings (6.5 percent) the next most common. Still, this is not necessarily representative of the archaeological resources across the region; many more sites and site types will be recorded as the project progresses. Not all archaeological sites are equally visible from satellite imagery; flint and pottery scatters, as well as rock art and inscription sites, will be less well represented when only remote sensing techniques are used. We anticipate that sites relating to burials will outnumber sites interpreted as settlements and those in other categories.

Early analysis of threats suggests that agricultural activity is a main cause of damage to sites across the region, representing 22 percent of all disturbances. While looting represents only about 4 percent of disturbances, it receives major media attention because of the illegal trade in stolen antiquities. Development, infrastructure, transport, and industrial activities account for 11 percent of all disturbances. Thus far we estimate that about 35 percent of all sites have been damaged or are threatened by one or more factors—but again, this number is likely to increase as more records are created and edited.

It is important that decisions related to heritage protection are based on evidence rather than assumptions or the publicity around infrequent but high-profile events. The EAMENA database provides that baseline evidence for the areas it has covered.

Training in Endangered Archaeology

Under the EAMENA umbrella, there was an important development in 2017 when the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund (CPF) provided a grant to the project for “Training in Endangered Archaeology Methodology with Middle East and North African Heritage Stakeholders.” The project is running a series of training workshops across the region to transfer remote sensing skills and knowledge of imagery analysis and interpretation to heritage professionals, mainly from governmental agencies but also from some universities. The first workshop was held in Tunis, Tunisia, in November 2017, and the second took place in February 2018 in Amman, Jordan. Further workshops are planned for 2018 and 2019 in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon (with shorter workshops funded by others in Oxford, for Iranians; there will also be a training program in Saudi Arabia).

The CPF-funded workshops are spread over two weeks for ten trainees drawn from heritage professionals in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Tunisia, and Syria. To earn their certificate, each trainee must create one hundred records in the database. They are provided a laptop they can use in their work after the course has been completed. To assist with future monitoring and recording, each trainee is also given a camera and a GPS. Although these workshops are in their early days, trainees have said that they are acquiring exactly the skills they need. Having locally based heritage professionals who are skilled in remote sensing techniques and who have access to the standardized database is a sustainable path forward. UK-based teams can do much of the preparatory work and create the baseline data, but to make a real difference records should be managed locally and used by those who know where major threats lie. Then, it is hoped, they will mitigate the threats as best they can.

Conservation image

As archaeologists, it can be easy to forget that not everyone shares our passion for the past or considers cultural heritage to be as important as we do. However, the major challenge—worldwide, and not just in the Middle East and North Africa—is convincing people (especially decision makers in the region) that heritage is not a drain on resources but rather can be a source of income. In Britain, where major changes in the landscape include house building and industrial development, cultural heritage by law must be taken into account as part of the decision-making process.

Experience has shown that throughout the Middle East and North Africa, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of building occurs without any recognition of cultural heritage that may be damaged or destroyed. The common excuse is that there is no record or information, but by having national inventories this excuse will no longer be viable. The EAMENA project aims to provide the basic information for these inventories and create the opportunity for every country in the region to have its own national heritage inventory. With UNESCO support, we are working with Yemen’s General Office of Antiquities and Museums (GOAM) to create a national heritage platform, based on our database; the conflict there has made this a high priority. The next step is to broadcast the availability of that information and ensure that others act on it. The EAMENA project has worked with many agencies that have responsibility for protection of heritage, including GOAM, Yemen; the Department of Antiquities, Jordan; INRAP (Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives), Morocco; UNESCO; and the International Committee of the Blue Shield, as well as the UK and US national Blue Shield committees.

A Critical Moment

The EAMENA project is ambitious, covering twenty countries and tackling an enormous task: to record in a short period as many archaeological sites currently under threat as possible. The project has funding until the end of December 2019, but we hope its legacy will continue through the trainees and their employees (mainly in governmental departments of antiquities and universities), and that further funding will be made available.

The project is at a critical moment. This year will see the delivery of five CPF training courses, with extra ones planned for Iranians as well as one in Saudi Arabia. In addition, the discussions, developments, and possible delivery of bespoke “national, digital, heritage inventories” to the relevant national agencies is a priority. This is all in addition to the main task of documenting the most significant archaeological sites under threat. The training courses advance the documentation, as each trainee has to create records for the project. By the conclusion of the project, over 140 heritage professionals will have been trained in the EAMENA methodology. All will have full access to their country’s database so they can continue to monitor and record threats to sites. Thus there is a foundation for a sustainable future for cultural heritage in those places where the infrastructure of information and skills has been created. While further funding will be needed, it is the hope of the EAMENA team, the institutions involved, and the funders to maintain and develop the EAMENA database and methodology into the foreseeable future.

Robert Bewley is director of the EAMENA project.