The ASOR CHI Database — Preserving and Protecting Cultural Heritage through Monitoring, Reporting, and Fact-Finding
Since its inception in July 2014, one of ASOR CHI’s main activities has been intensive monitoring, reporting, and fact-finding (MRF) to help address the challenges of the cultural heritage crises unfolding in Syria and northern Iraq. These challenges include cultural cleansing and deliberate destructions of cultural heritage sites by extremists, severe damage caused by years of intense military activity often involving direct targeting of heritage sites, and rampant archaeological looting and antiquities trafficking for terrorist and conflict finance.
ASOR CHI activities generate new data and, in turn, require access to existing datasets. ASOR CHI and our partners draw on this data to plan and implement emergency response projects, cultural property protection actions, capacity building initiatives, and public outreach and awareness-raising efforts. In short, MRF and the supporting data management system form the nerve center of our program.
To cope with the rapid flow of incoming information and the need to disseminate it accurately and quickly in order to support emergency actions by a diverse range of stakeholders, ASOR CHI has developed and maintained a relational database system for the storage, structuring, and analysis of a wide array of baseline data on cultural heritage. For example, recorded information includes basic background and descriptive data on heritage sites (e.g. site size, location, and dating), which is cross-indexed to relevant high-resolution satellite imagery and on-the-ground cultural heritage assessments, ASOR CHI’s Weekly Report Series and Special Reports, and traditional media coverage and social media pertaining to conflict-related damage and destruction incidents.
Over the last two years, ASOR CHI has inventoried 13,000 cultural heritage sites in Syria and northern Iraq. The inventory includes a wide range of different site types, such as archaeological, religious, and secular sites as well as museums, libraries, and historic districts.
At its core, the database contains an inventory of 13,000 cultural heritage sites across Syria and northern Iraq that documents the region’s rich and diverse cultural fabric spanning many millennia. The inventory forms the crucial overarching structure of our broader relational database system that we use on a daily basis to document and analyze the damage, destruction, and decay caused by the current cultural heritage crisis — the worst since World War II.
ASOR CHI and other groups use this database to record and access in-country documentation acquired by heritage experts, NGOs, local stakeholders, and activists. Such data is often quite detailed, but its reliability must be verified through other means such as satellite assessments and more systematic ground-based condition assessments of specific sites, monuments, and collections. Certainly one of the most reliable sources of information are satellite assessments, which help us to identify, verify, and assess much of the reported and unreported damage and destruction, but satellites cannot see everything. Often cloud cover, buildings, vegetation, and a lack of new images for a particular area impose limits. ASOR CHI also searches traditional media sources and social media such as Twitter and Facebook to discover new heritage incidents and to obtain corroborating information. Media collected through such open-source data acquisition, as well as media collected through other activities, are managed through our media index. All of these databases and others not mentioned here are interlinked to form a reliable data management platform that helps us to analyze cultural heritage incidents and store evidence on cultural property crimes.
This ongoing documentation and analysis supports efforts to safeguard cultural resources, to maintain access to cultural heritage, and ultimately to preserve and protect cultural identity, memory, and diversity against direct attacks and other detrimental impacts. In the coming year, ASOR CHI will export a large portion of its data to the ARCHES platform, which we are developing through the support of the Getty Conservation Institute. ARCHES will provide a secure online platform for providing access to this data to a global audience and thereby support an even wider range preservation and protection efforts.