A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!


Beyond Stone & Bone

Could Google Earth Help Us Stop Looting?
by Heather Pringle
June 3, 2010

This is a good news story that began with some exceedingly grim news.

This grim news came to light in the late spring of 2003, after the dust had begun settling from the  invasion of Iraq and archaeologists began taking stock of the country’s looted archaeological sites.   To measure the severity of the problem and determine when most of it had occurred, Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, purchased a series of high-resolution commercial satellite images taken of southern Iraq just before and after the invasion.  Stone pored over them, examining known sites and measuring the extent of looters’ pits over time.   These scars on the landscape can be seen from space.

Much of looting, Stone discovered, occurred just before and just after the invasion.  And the total area pillaged,  she noted in a 2007 paper in Antiquity, “was many times greater than all the archaeological investigations ever conducted in southern Iraq and must have yielded tablets, coins, cylinder seals, statues, terracottas, bronzes and other objects in the hundreds of thousands.”

It was a grave situation, one requiring intervention from Iraq’s new government, and Stone let everyone know what she had learned.  At one point, she flew out to California to give a lecture on the subject at Stanford University, and as sometimes happens, her talk galvanized a young post-doc, Daniel Contreras.  Contreras had put in several field seasons as an archaeologist in Peru:  he had found the scale of looting there staggering. “You can’t drive down the Panamerican highway without seeing looters’ pits,” he says. “So looting is really never off the radar there.”

Contreras wanted to start quantifying looting in Peru, à la Stone.   But satellite photos are pricey, and Contreras couldn’t afford to buy them.  So he and Stanford colleague, Neil Brodie,  an archaeologist who specializes in looting issues,  started casting around for something much cheaper.   What they discovered is that Google Earth photos work just fine.  So in the current issue of Antiquity,  Contreras publishes the results of his Google Earth study of looting in Peru’s Vir’u Valley, concluding that a whopping 116 acres of sites in this relatively small valley show intensive damage.

Ok, I know, this still doesn’t sound like good news.  But I thought Contrera’s study was ingenious, so I called him up this week to talk about it.  Just before hanging up,   I asked him whether this might be the beginning of a much larger project, one that enlists the sharp eyes of the Google Earth community and anyone else with an interest in archaeology to keep an eye on the world’s looting hotspots.  Could archaeologists crowdsource the monitoring of the our collective archaeological heritage?

“Definitely,” he said, without a moment of hesitation.  In fact, he’s now thinking of how to go about doing just that. The technology is all there,  he said,  it’s just a question of how to administer it.   “And I think this would make people a little more aware of the problem of looting, as well as providing a tangible source of documentation for archaeologists.”

Facts and figures of this type are exactly what archaeologists need the next time they press for stricter laws on the looting and sale of antiquites.   And I think this new Google Earth study is very good news.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

11 comments for "Could Google Earth Help Us Stop Looting?"

  • Reply posted by James D. Andrew (June 3, 2010, 3:46 pm):

    Maybe it is a ingenious method to watch the sites by useing Google Earth but it can’t prevent the sites from looting and stealing. It is diffulit to find stealing even you are around there so that how to protect the site from destroying is a hard work.

         

  • Reply posted by Heather Pringle (June 3, 2010, 8:22 pm):

    Yes, I take your point about the difficulty of trying to stop the looters even when you are in the immediate area. But the thing about the Google Earth work is that it gives archaeologists the necessary data they need to lobby hard for policy and legislative changes needed to crack down on looting.

         

  • Reply posted by Miguel Angel Tejeda B (June 8, 2010, 8:35 am):

    Por supuesto que es dificil detener por cuenta propia el saqueo arquelogico que varias regiones del mundo son victimas de este mal, pero como dice Heather Pringle, se trata de dar presion a las autoridades del pais o region donde se este llevando este tipo de acciones y si algo realmente nos puede ayudar a las gentes como nosotros los que no estamos de acuerdo con este tipo de practicas pues solo Google Earth a mi parecer es un intrumento idoneo para lograrlo, lastima que en mi caso no sirva de mucho ya que utilizo la version gratuita, la cual tiene varios meses y hasta años de no ser actualizada, mas sin embargo creo que habra muchos que si cuenten con la version mas actualizada y podran de esta manera detectar si hubo tal o cual saqueo, y no se olviden que todavia faltan muchas, creo yo, areas arquelogicas por descubrir y mucho serviria que fundaciones u ONG dedicadas a esto pudieran hacerlo en forma permanente. Por ultmo solo quiero decirles que en mi PC nunca falta uno de mis programas preferidos que es GOOGLE EARTH”.

         

  • Reply posted by links for 2010-06-04 | Digital Mobile Map (June 13, 2010, 3:13 am):

    [...] Archaeology Magazine Blog – Could Google Earth Help Us Stop Looting? Interesting article about using Google Earth's historical imagery as an inexpensive resource for recording and dating archaeological looting events in Peru. Refers to a paper in Antiquity journal. [...]

         

  • Reply posted by Jeremiah Stager (June 13, 2010, 6:06 am):

    This seems like a great idea to me and very necessary. I’m an archaeologist and have been studying the Hopewell Culture for the past three years. The looting and careless agricultural practices have reduced thousands of earthworks to just a hand full of reasonably preserved sites. It is a shame that we must work together to prevent in other regions.

         

  • Reply posted by Use Google Earth to Prevent Looting? « Biblical Paths (June 14, 2010, 11:21 pm):

    [...] Leave a comment This has been an ongoing discussion: Archaeology Magazine recently wrote an interesting post about the the vast looting of Iraq’s archaeological sites. It’s a sad tale, with many [...]

         

  • Reply posted by Usare Google Earth per prevenire i saccheggi? (June 16, 2010, 10:00 am):

    [...] Archaeology Pubblicato in Varie | Tag: [...]

         

  • Reply posted by Theological History » ANE News – 06.25.10 (June 25, 2010, 9:27 am):

    [...] Could Google Earth Help Us Stop Looting? …Just before hanging up,   I asked him whether this might be the beginning of a much larger project, one that enlists the sharp eyes of the Google Earth community and anyone else with an interest in archaeology to keep an eye on the world’s looting hotspots.  Could archaeologists crowdsource the monitoring of the our collective archaeological heritage? “Definitely,” he said, without a moment of hesitation. [...]

         

  • Reply posted by Louis McWhinnie (July 29, 2010, 5:47 am):

    An interesting topic, but I have always suspected that Google Earth could also be used by professional looters to help map potential sites, e.g. ancient river flows, mounds, and the structural remains of dwellings, are spotted more easily from the air, than on the ground.

         

  • Reply posted by Open Mobile Map » links for 2010-06-04 (August 19, 2010, 6:59 pm):

    [...] Archaeology Magazine Blog – Could Google Earth Help Us Stop Looting? Interesting article about using Google Earth's historical imagery as an inexpensive resource for recording and dating archaeological looting events in Peru. Refers to a paper in Antiquity journal. [...]

         

  • Reply posted by Driver Disk (December 7, 2010, 2:29 am):

    Looting has obviusly taken place for years.. Egypt for instance.. indeed the battle was to find tombs so hidden that they had survived for thousands of years even to the profeesional local looters. With todays advaces in ground resistance and radar surely technology will overcome and reveal many more sites. I was in iraq and i can confirm that one of the major and yet “undesclosed” reasons we were there was all down to Babylon on Sadams rebuilding of the sites.. There was much archaeology that was removed by the forces and taken directly to the private Market. i have photos and i will post some more information another day..

         


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit www.lastwordonnothing.com.

Thanks for writing! While we may not be able to respond to every message, we appreciate your comments and suggestions. (Comments are now closed.)


RSS feed
Trowel Tales: The AIA Blog


Share