Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership


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 Oriental Institute since October of 2015. Grant work is carried out in Chicago by the staff of the CAMEL Lab. Kabul-based GIS training funded by the grant is carried out with the cooperation and support of a variety of Afghan partners, including Kabul Polytechnic University.

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. An analysis of country-wide spatial patterns in looting is forthcoming in presentations and publications by Emily Hammer, Anthony Lauricella, and Kate Franklin.

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.


GIS Training in Kabul

The Partnership also includes a GIS training program for archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists in Afghanistan. Training began in January 2017 and was led by the Oriental Institute’s GIS trainer in Kabul, Jessica Giraud, in collaboration with the GIS faculty of Kabul Polytechnic University (KPU). KPU has two GIS laboratories outfitted with one hundred computers powered by stored solar energy and loaded with GIS software. These laboratories were created with support from a grant from the US Embassy in Kabul, led by Dr. Hussein Abaza (Kennesaw State University, Atlanta). The CAMEL Lab provides teaching resources and curricula in order to extend KPU’s expertise to archaeological applications of GIS and to inform students who will work in the urban planning and mining sectors about cultural heritage concerns. The training program began in October 2016 with an instructor-training course led by Jessica Giraud at KPU, facilitated by the efforts of Alejandro Gallego, the Oriental Institute’s Field Director in Kabul. We are grateful to have such terrific infrastructure and partners to facilitate our training program.

Meeting at KPU GIS lab
Emily Hammer presents an image of Balkh to KPU instructors, faculty, and chancellor in July 2016.
Photo by Gil Stein.

KPU lecture
Jessica Giraud lectures at KPU during the Teachers' Training Course in the KPU GIS lab,
October 2015. Photo by Alejandro Gallego.

Tepe Maranjan training 2
Alejandro Gallego and Jessica Giraud at Tepe Maranjan during the KPU Teachers' Training,
October 2015.

KPU training
Jessica Giraud and members of the KPU Teachers' Training Course, October 2015.
Photo by Alejandro Gallego.

Tepe Maranjan training
KPU instructors carry out a GPS and Survey training exercise at Tepe Maranjan in Kabul,
October 2015. Photo by Alejandro Gallego.



Current AHMP Team members


Eric T. Hubbard (Project Manager)

Anthony J. Lauricella (CAMEL Acting Director)

Michael A. Johnson

Jennifer T. Feng



Jessica Giraud (GIS Trainer)

Alejandro Gallego (Field Director in Kabul)


Past AHMP Team Members:

Dr. Kathryn Franklin (Manager) 
Dr. Emily Hammer (Manager)
Dr. Rebecca Seifried (Manager)
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 OI Program Admin. Brendan Bulger and past OI 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.