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Eyewitness in the Sky

Using satellite imagery, a UB alumnus monitors cultural destruction in the Middle East

Scott Branting.

Scott Branting in front of a 2003 satellite image of Kerkenes, an archaeological site in central Turkey that he has studied for more than two decades. Photos: Nicholas Leyva/Satellite image courtesy of Digitalglobe

By Jeff Klein

“Any time you drop a bomb, there’s going to be some damage.”
Scott Branting

From half a world away, archaeologist Scott Branting (PhD ’04, MA ’03) has been watching the ancient monuments of Syria and northern Iraq get bombed, looted, obliterated.

“At Nimrud, you see them pulling out reliefs and jackhammering them,” he says of what Islamic State fighters did at a 3,000-year-old Assyrian site in northern Iraq, which he witnessed through a series of detailed satellite images. He has also seen the toppling of ancient pillars, the destruction of mosques and churches, and the pillaging of museums, all from his lab at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando.

Branting, one of the world’s top researchers in the field of archaeology and geospatial science, is a principal investigator with the American Schools of Oriental Research, a nonprofit scholarly organization that studies the Ancient Near East. With funding from the U.S. State Department, the Getty Institute and other donors, the organization monitors the ongoing damage to cultural and historical sites in those war-torn lands. The project is called the Cultural Heritage Initiatives.

“It’s horrible to see the destruction of cultural heritage being used as a tool to sow fear and tear away people’s identities,” he says. “Even more horrific are the killings and violations of people that have gone hand in hand with the destruction of cultural heritage.”

Over the last three years, Branting and his colleagues have inventoried some 13,000 heritage sites, conducted 9,000 satellite assessments and produced more than 1,000 reports. “I deal mainly with satellite imagery and other types of geospatial information,” says Branting, who also uses other data, like on-the-ground intelligence, to prepare his findings. The remarkably detailed reports he helps produce are presented at White House briefings, shared with Interpol and stockpiled as evidence for future war crimes trials.

They’ve also revealed some surprising deceptions.

When Branting started his work, the Islamic State (IS) was gaining control over much of Syria and northern Iraq. It distributed videos of IS fighters deliberately destroying antiquities that the group denounced as idolatrous and anti-Islamic. But contrary to appearances, the Islamic State wasn’t destroying everything. The jackhammering at Nimrud is one example—the debris pile Branting observed was much smaller than what would’ve been expected from the complete destruction of all the reliefs at the site.

“So they may well have pulled things out,” says Branting, “and subsequently we have knowledge of things coming onto the black market, artifacts that are most likely coming from these sources. Certainly there are cases where the Islamic State exaggerated the extent of the destruction they perpetrated, and looted instead.”

Over the last year, the IS has lost most of the territory it once controlled. But the destruction of cultural sites continues, inflicted by the Iraqi and Syrian armies, regional militias, rebel groups and foreign forces.

“There are other groups causing damage, not all of it deliberate looting of antiquities,” says Branting. “But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been extreme damage—collateral damage from barrel bombs dropped out of helicopters, bombing by jets.” American aircraft, he adds, have caused some of that destruction. “The U.S. tries to their best ability to avoid that within the parameters of the mission, and other parties do as well. But any time you drop a bomb, there’s going to be some damage.”

Branting, 45, earned a master’s degree at the University of Chicago before attending UB, where he earned a second master’s, in geography, and a PhD in anthropology. (His dissertation was on pedestrian traffic in Kerkenes, an Iron Age city in modern-day Turkey that was destroyed around 550 BCE.) He then spent 10 years directing the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Landscapes. Today he is an assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Central Florida, where he directs research at Kerkenes alongside his geospatial monitoring of endangered cultural sites.

“UB was certainly instrumental in placing me where I’m at now,” he says. “When I was there, the university had a National Science Foundation-based doctoral program that was sort of a collaboration between anthropology, geography, various portions of engineering and philosophy. It created this interdisciplinary community that was absolutely essential to me taking the next step from being an archaeologist to using remote sensing technologies and geographic information systems.”

Branting is quick to point out that his specialty, though not as technologically advanced as it is now, has been around for decades. “During shuttle missions in the early ’90s, NASA used radar technology to find the lost city of Ubar,” an ancient city buried beneath the sands of the Arabian Peninsula. “Looking at antiquities from space or trying to find archaeological sites is certainly not something new.”

But monitoring cultural destruction from space is, unfortunately, a growing line of work. The State Department recently added Libya to the Cultural Heritage Initiatives’ portfolio.

“Sadly, our scope has expanded,” Branting says. “There’s no shortage of damage taking place.”