Observing and safeguarding archaeology in Uruk-Warka

© IKONOS /DLR
Satellite image of Uruk-Warka, Iraq

Uruk-Warka, situated c. 300 km south of Baghdad, is one of the oldest metropolises of the ancient world. It was inhabited from c. 4000 BC to c. 400 AD and is known as the city where writing was invented. It is the home of one of the world’s oldest epics, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and is also the place where early state formation and administration were developed. The cultural site itself is enormous: by 3000 BC the city had already spread over 5.5 km².

Excavations by German missions started at the site in 1912. The German Archaeological Institute has been involved in on-going research, although field work has recently had to cease. To date, it is estimated that only 5% of the enormous city has been analysed.

In 2001, a scientific project was launched to collect information that could provide better knowledge of the whole structure of the city.

© DLR/European Space Imaging
Satellite image of Uruk-Warka, Iraq

With the help of a geophysical survey, precious insights into structures buried under mud hills became possible. Cross-checking of the new data with previous existing archaeological data enabled the dating and interpretation of all the structures. 

Unfortunately, the site is under potential threat of illegal digging and associated looting. To better monitor the site a new project using recent satellite imagery has been initiated in cooperation between UNESCO and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). 

Methods to compare satellite images with known ground data, such as archaeological features, magnetometry imagery and topographical data are also being developed. The study will help to estimate the state of preservation of the whole archaeological site, as well as provide a view from space of the entire ancient infrastructure.

By comparing two high-resolution satellite images, DLR found that a heritage site near Uruk was being severely looted. This is an excellent demonstration of the uses of space technologies to monitor heritage sites in isolated areas.

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