Spy Satellites, Google Earth Now Guarding World’s Great Ancient Sites

Conservationists are using spy satellites, cutting-edge computer technology, and an expert human network to build an “early warning system” for some of the planet’s greatest—and most threatened—archaeological sites.

“What we’re trying to do is really bring the world’s archaeologists, conservators, historians, and other experts together and help them organize and help manage these sites of interest. And we provide satellite mapping, scientific dossiers, information on legal status, all the relevant data about these sites so that people can make informed decisions,” explained Jeff Morgan, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund.

The Global Heritage Fund, Google Earth, and DigitalGlobe launched the Global Heritage Network (GHN) last spring. It makes oft-updated satellite imagery available online, 24 hours a day, so that expert eyes around the world can monitor changing ground conditions at iconic sites like Angkor Wat, Nineveh, Pompeii and dozens of others.

“We’re updating some 600 sites now on an annual basis and able to see changes down to the letters on a mailbox, thanks to Digital Globe satellite imagery,” Morgan said.

Finding trouble often doesn’t take such detail. Global Heritage estimates that about 200 of the 500 cultural heritage sites in the developing world are in danger of being lost to threats like looting, conflict, environmental disasters, and urbanization. Some are difficult to visit because they are remote or located in areas plagued by conflict or drug trafficking. And while all are officially protected many World Heritage sites are critically short of funds and personnel to actually safeguard them, Morgan said.

“The budget might be $30,000 (U.S.) for the best site in Vietnam. A site like that should have a staff of 30 or 40 people for maintenance including conservators, architects, and archaeologists working to fix problems. But a lot of countries just don’t have the human resources to do stone conservation, structural engineering, or urban planning.”

But GHN is making such experts available, no matter where in the world they live, by building a network of people interested in monitoring changes to these special places and exchanging information that can help shape efforts to preserve them.

Morgan said some 800 architects, archaeologists, lawyers, and other preservation people have signed up so far including 80 different site coordinators who have volunteered to build site-specific teams for each location. Banteay Chhmar, for example, brings Cambodians like the local community-based tourism group together with other experts at organizations around the world like Friends of Khmer Culture and the University of Heidelberg (Germany).

“We’re really a heritage conservation platform,” Morgan said.

That platform relies on cutting-edge technology from a suite of sponsors to help bring management of ancient sites into the modern information age.

“At many of these sites you show up and talk to the local guy working there and he’s well-intentioned, and smart, but when you ask if he even has a map that shows the boundaries of the site he doesn’t,” Morgan said. “How can it be a world heritage site if you don’t even have a map?”

The network is working to solve that problem by deploying a powerful array of technology including on-site GPS units from Ashtech, satellite mapping tools from Digital Globe and Google Earth, satellite change analysis software sponsored by ITT, and Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) software that helps turn geographic data into information useful to preservationists.

“We want people in Nigeria or Guatemala to have the same level of technology as we would in the United States,” Morgan explained, noting that the networks’ reception has been positive in the countries where it’s at work. “We’re taking a proactive approach on the side of the site director and the ministry of culture. They are usually under-resourced and need all the help they can get.”

Such help is sorely needed, Morgan said, because pressure is growing on sites and can often be seen simply by looking at satellite images of creeping sprawl or environmental degradation. The good news, he stressed, is that saving troubled World Heritage Sites is a very achievable goal.

“These sites are not that big, they are often only a square kilometer or two so it’s not like trying to save the Amazon,” Morgan said. “And they don’t cost a lot of money to turn around. We’re not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. I feel like if we spend half a million dollars we can really make a difference and with tourism there is often an ongoing revenue stream you can model up.”

“We have the technology to really save these sites and take care of them them,” he added. “It’s all doable, and it’s really just poor management and lack of will that’s causing the damage that we’re seeing.”

Human Journey

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Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire.