Spies in the sky: the answer to stopping archaeological looting?

A new project asks volunteers to scan satellite photos of Peru for both signs of looting and undiscovered archaeological sites. 

Courtesy of DigitalGlobe
A portion of the site of Chan Chan in Peru that shows evidence of heavy looting activity.

An archaeologist hailed as a modern-day “Indiana Jones” wants more eyes in the sky to stop the looting of historic cultural sites worldwide, starting with ruins left behind by the Incans and other indigenous civilizations in the Peruvian highlands and coastal desert.

The GlobalXplorer Project, an idea conceived by space archaeologist Sarah Parcak, went live Monday. Now anyone with an internet connection, a vigilant eye, and a spare minute can help stop looters. All these amateur or “citizen” archaeologists need to do is look at slides of high-resolution satellite imagery on the GlobalXplorer website for telltale signs of looting or undiscovered ruins.

Started with a $1 million TED Prize, the project propels archaeological preservation into the 21st century with crowdsourcing and citizen science. From kite-flying Benjamin Franklin to self-taught British chemist Michael Faraday, citizen scientists have a history of making ground-breaking contributions to our knowledge of the world. The internet has magnified their impact, uniting millions of hobbyists to identify storm systems on Jupiter that professionals missed, prove lead contamination in the water system of Flint, Mich., and bring attention to a mass die-off of starfish.

Now that the archaeological world is joining the citizen science movement, researchers say arming a legion of volunteers with satellite images will allow countries like Peru to stop looters, while also inspiring a new generation to be passionate about archaeology and our understanding of our past and ourselves.

“Rather than a few archaeologists trying to fight a guerrilla war against looters, we have the global community on the offensive,” says Dr. Parcak, an associate professor at the University of Alabama, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. “Our shared human history is priceless and something we should all have a stake in – and by creating a crowdsourced platform we’ve put the tools to learn and protect into the hands of anyone with an internet connection.”

After watching a short tutorial on the GlobalXplorer website, volunteers are shown a slide, or tile, of a high-resolution satellite image the size of a few city blocks. Users can identify signs of either looting (such as a cluster of pits or bulldozer tracks) or undiscovered archaeological sites (indicated through under-grown vegetation). The information is then passed onto GlobalXplorer, a collaboration of TED, National Geographic, and DigitalGlobe, which provided the satellite imagery broken down into tiles.

If there is evidence of looting, the information captured by a satellite some 383 miles above Earth is passed on to Peru’s Ministry of Culture and the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, a nonprofit that protects world heritage sites.

“As soon as they see new or destroyed sites from space, we will be there on the ground to investigate and protect them,” said Larry Coben, founder and executive director of the nonprofit, in a press release shared with the Monitor. “We will also empower and train the communities around those sites so that they can benefit economically from their heritage without looting and destroying it.”

The more time a user spends peering at images, the more photos, videos and articles they can unlock from National Geographic’s archives about Peru and its ancient civilizations.

For now, the project’s focus is on about 125,000 square miles of the South American country. But Parcak and her team plan to add a new, undisclosed country later this year.

Peru was an obvious place to start. It has more national monuments important to the archaeological world than all of North America, explains Charles Stanish, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who has worked extensively in Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, but was not involved in the project.

“It is so incredibly rich with resources,” the archaeologist tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “Even a country with the capacity of the United States wouldn’t have the resources to properly manage it.”

It also has a long history of tomb raiders. For generations, "huaqueros" – the Quechua word for "grave robbers" – have searched for gold, ceramics, tapestries, and precious stones in the ancient graves across the northern coastal desert of Peru and other parts of the country. For the past two or three decades, they have been the first link in an illicit, lucrative trafficking chain, with most artifacts smuggled out of Peru and sold to clients in Europe, the United States, and Asia.

A 2010 report by the Global Heritage Fund, “Saving Our Varnishing Heritage,” identified nearly 200 “at risk” sites in developing nations, including in South and Central America, as The Guardian reported. Northern Peru, home to the ancient Moche civilization, has been reduced to a “lunar landscape” by looter trenches scattered across hundreds of miles.

"An estimated 100,000 tombs – over half the country's known sites – have been looted," reads the report.

From Egyptian pyramids to Mayan temples in Central America, looting has been a problem ever since there were treasures to loot. But the issue gained more international attention starting in 2001, when Taliban fighters in Afghanistan blew up two monumental Buddha statues, Peter Ford reported for The Christian Science Monitor. Islamic State militants have since burned down the Mosul library in Iraq and razed ruins from the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, nicknamed the “pearl of the desert.” 

“The last five years have been horrific for archaeology,” Parcak says.

The use of satellite imagery and aerial photos in the fight against looting and in archaeological discovery isn’t new, however. Archaeologists and the scientific world have relied on satellites to study archaeological sites and identify new ones for the last two 20 or so years, explains Rosa Lasaponara, a senior researcher for Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Italy, and the co-author of a 2010 study, “Facing the Archaeological Looting in Peru by Using Very High Resolution Satellite Imagery and Local Spatial Autocorrelation Statistics.” There are efforts underway by the European Agency, NASA, and others to open up this information to the public, as well as use artificial intelligence to process data to monitor and discover sites, she says.

But the GlobalXplorer project marks a campaign to bring amateur archaeology from the era of Google Earth to one with more zoomed in, higher resolution photos. Some have voiced concern about whether these images could be used to identify and sack ruins rather than save them. But all the slides are shown to users in a random order, with no location coordinates or references.

As in much of the science world, there was also resistance among some archaeologists to the idea that amateurs were even capable of analyzing cultural sites. Andrew Maynard, director of the risk innovation lab at Arizona State University, wrote about these doubts within the scientific community in an article that appeared in the Monitor in January of last year.

“Perhaps the greatest barrier to citizen-led and citizen-relevant science, though, is intransigent institutionalized attitudes,” wrote Dr. Maynard. “There’s an attitude that still lingers within the global science community that holds that 'nonscientists' should revere, but not interfere with, science.”

But Dr. Stanish at UCLA says the GlobalXplorer project is, in fact, progress.

“You have millions of eyes looking at something that can instantly transmit that information,” he says. “In the past, the time lapse between someone seeing looting going on and the authorities knowing about it was way too long.”

There’s another benefit, adds Erin Thompson, an assistant professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Identifying and monitoring cultural sites, she says, could lead to justice in prosecuting those who destroy cultural property. She notes that the project’s launch comes after Ahmad al-Fahdi al-Mahdi became the first man convicted by an international court of a war crime against cultural heritage, for destroying adobe mausoleums in the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali in 2012.

Morag Kersel, an archaeologist at DePaul University, says she plans to have her students in her introductory class use the website.

“For me, the teaching capability is one of the most exciting things about this initiative – to get people aware,” she says.

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