The satellite review of Ukraine does not only focus on military hardware. Thousands of miles from the fighting, an international group of archaeologists, historians and technicians are quietly coordinating another high-stakes monitoring effort: tracking the mounting losses of Ukraine’s cultural landscape.
Now a summary of the impact, released this month by their lab at a museum in the US state of Virginia, has revealed the grim truth.
So far, signs of damage to 191 monuments and cultural places have been detected. Most of the destruction – believed to have been carried out by invading Russian troops – has been concentrated on Ukrainian memorials and places of worship. Fifty-eight churches, mosques, temples and cathedrals are now listed, as well as 111 places of memory and nine public monuments. The war also saw two art venues attacked – including the Mariupol Theatre, the images of which have gone viral – and an archaeological site. The violence directed at monuments and buildings may seem insignificant compared to the growing number of injuries and deaths inflicted on Ukrainian families, but for a country in the shadow of a threatening neighbour, culture and heritage can play a part crucial. The deliberate targeting of religious and cultural sites is also prohibited by the 1954 Hague Convention, although individual perpetrators have rarely been punished.
The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, is the hub for coordinating global efforts to record and protect at-risk sites. The network was created last year in partnership with the renowned Smithsonian Institution Cultural Rescue Initiative, founded in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which works to train museum curators around the world to respond to conflict.
News of any affected sites immediately returns to Ukraine in case damage to artifacts can be limited, or at least documented in the field. Inside Ukrainian museums, many cabinets containing Byzantine icons and Scythian gold were moved. Valuable works of art have been hidden in basements or secretly moved to foreign museums that support them. Other national collections are guarded by guards who are now armed and ready to repel looters.
The operation in Virginia relies on the expertise of American and European curators and is led by archaeologist Hayden Bassett. “It’s a 24/7 operation,” he recently told the Washington Post. “Even though we may not be looking at a screen at 3 a.m., our satellites are imaging at 3 a.m..”
Brian Daniels, an anthropologist working with the team in Virginia, said the attack rate had increased significantly since the report was published. He told the Observer: “The violence is now concentrated on civilian infrastructure, which means that museums and cultural heritage are targeted by this scorched earth policy.”
Bassett found significant cultural damage in the most densely populated areas, including the complete destruction of a museum in Ivankiv two months ago.
The 26,000 cultural sites monitored by the lab this month through a combination of remote sensing, open source research and satellite imagery, include Ukraine’s seven World Heritage Sites. The best known of these is the golden-domed Saint Sophia Cathedral in kyiv, which remains intact. Ukraine’s culture ministry has also urged witnesses to send photographs to its cultural crimes website, culturecrimes.mkip.gov.ua, so that verified evidence can be sent to the International Criminal Court.
The lab’s new impact report defined cultural heritage broadly, covering places and historic sites and monuments, but not libraries and archives. A “potential impact” detected means a sign of possible damage based on remote sensing methods. Other less significant impacts may not be visible for geospatial technology.
The Russian-controlled territories of Donbass and Crimea were among the first concerns, according to Damian Koropeckyj, a senior analyst, who found evidence that destroyed monuments there are being replaced by new ones supporting a Russian version of the heritage of the region.
“We are a remote project. But it’s certainly very real to me. Believing that we can make a difference here is important,” Koropeckyj said.