The analysis of satellite imagery is an important way to continue archaeological research and to monitor cultural heritage preservation in conflict zones across the Middle East and Central Asia.

The Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership (AHMP) is a project supported by an institutional grant from the US Department of State and the US Embassy in Kabul to the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures since October 2015. Grant work is carried out in Chicago by the staff of the CAMEL Lab. 

The Partnership draws on satellite imagery and other geospatial technologies to build a comprehensive geographic information systems (GIS) database of identifiable archaeological sites across Afghanistan. The goals in creating this database are to:

  1. Inventory and map known and previously unknown archaeological heritage sites, especially in areas threatened by future mining development, urban expansion, and looting;
  2. Document the current state of archaeological site preservation and analyze spatial and temporal patterns in looting;
  3. Create a planning tool that will allow heritage protection to be incorporated into mining, economic, and urban development projects; and
  4. Train a cohort of Afghan information technology specialists and heritage professionals in the use of GIS technology for cultural heritage management.

Tepe Maranjan
Survey training at Tepe Maranjan in Kabul, October 2016. Photo by Alejandro Gallego.


Database Development

The backbone of the AHMP database development has been the visual confirmation, correction, and enrichment of metadata for sites listed in the Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan (Ball and Gardin 1982). Though some site types (lithic scatters, petroglyphs, caves, and more) can never be found on satellite imagery, our ability to positively identify sites increases as we continue to acquire new and higher-resolution geospatial datasets. Our corrected and expanded dataset has already been used to help the US Committee of the Blue Shield develop a geospatial no-strike list that aids the United States in planning military action in ways that do not harm major heritage sites.

Warwick Ball visit to CAMEL
Warwick Ball, author of the 1982 gazetteer, visited CAMEL to exchange ideas and information in October 2016


Identification of Previously Unmapped Archaeological Sites in Threatened Areas

The second phase of our database development and grant research identifies previously unmapped archaeological sites using both maps and satellite imagery. We focus our mapping efforts on areas in the vicinity of Afghanistan’s rapidly expanding cities and on tracts of land that the US Geological Survey has identified as high priority for mining development.

The data collected from a variety of sources indicate that urbanization and other forms of development threaten archaeological sites much more immediately and on a larger scale than potential future mining activities, despite the greater visibility in the media of mining-related destruction of significant sites like Mes Aynak. An analysis of the relationship between urbanization and site destruction around the city of Herat is the topic of an MA thesis by Gwendolyn Kristy ('17), a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies.

Balkh sites example
An example of three sites newly mapped by CAMEL in the Balkh region. Imagery courtesy of DigitalGlobe.


Landscape Archaeology Projects

The systematic mapping of previously undocumented sites provides important information about ancient/pre-modern settlement patterns and environments. Several landscape archaeology projects have sprung from our database work. One such project investigates fortification patterns in the Balkh region (carried out by Anthony Lauricella and Emily Hammer) and a second focuses on pastoral inhabitation in the Spin Boldak region east of Kandahar (carried out by Kate Franklin and Anthony Lauricella in collaboration with David Thomas). Beyond Afghanistan, the data collected by the project may be applied to larger regional questions that bridge transnational archaeological landscapes. For example, the study of Northwestern Afganistan's Bronze Age landscape and its potential to speak to connections with contemporary settlement patterns and long-distance networks in the Murghab Oasis, Turkmenistan is the topic of an ongoing AHMP project and the basis of an MA thesis by Eric Hubbard ( MAPSS '18).

Balkh oasis archaeology
Known archaeological sites in northern Afghanistan follow active courses and paleochannels of the Balkhab River; CAMEL staff have mapped thousands more of them using satellite imagery, including the sites shown in the section above. Imagery from Google Earth.


Monitoring Site Destruction

Another component of the project aims to diachronically document destruction of archaeological sites through looting, development, and other processes. We use time-series of DigitalGlobe imagery, made available for use through Department of State-provided access to an online repository, to record types and severity of destruction at individual sites in the 1982 gazetteer. We also examine site preservation in other ultra-high-resolution imagery datasets, particularly from the Buckeye program.

A subset of the site destruction component of the grant project focuses specifically on damage to archaeological sites from military installations and activity. The relationship between military activity and archaeological site destruction is the subject of an Anthropology BA thesis by Emily Boak ('17).

Qarawal Tepe Looting
Qarawal Tepe in Northern Afghanistan has been extensively looted -- the 2013 image shows the site marked by thousands of pits. Imagery courtesy of the USGS and DigitalGlobe.


Current AHMP Team members


Andrew Wright (Project Manager)

Anthony J. Lauricella


Past AHMP Team Members:


Dr. Kathryn Franklin (Manager) 
Dr. Emily Hammer (Manager)
Dr. Rebecca Seifried (Manager)

Eric Hubbard (Manager)

Michael A. Johnson

Jennifer T. Feng

Emily Boak
Danielle Brown
Shaheen Chaudry
Gwendolyn Kristy
Oren Siegel
Greg Ross


We are grateful to the project's PI, Gil Stein, for his support and for the administrative assistance of ISAC program admin Brendan Bulger and past ISAC executive director Steve Camp. We are also indebited to the US Department of State and the US Embassy in Kabul, especially Laura Tedesco, for support and data access.