Benchmarking the Maritime Cultural Heritage of Syria

Kieran Westley1, Nicolas Carayon2, Colin Breen1, Lucy Blue2.

1School of Geography & Environmental Sciences, Ulster University.

2Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton.


Fig 1. Shipwrecks around Tartus. Note that many of the recorded wrecks (green symbols) are modern. A) Intertidal/nearshore wreck north of Tartus imaged by very high-resolution satellite image (Google Earth).B) and C) Ceramics (amphora base, rim and handles) from the Arwad A and Arwad B wreck site (from Kampbell 2013: Figs 2 and 4).

The Honor Frost Foundation’s (HFF) central mission is to advance maritime archaeological research in the eastern Mediterranean region. Significant advances have been made in developing networks and supporting research in Cyprus and Lebanon, but the situation in Syria has been complicated by the on-going conflict and humanitarian crisis. At some stage the conflict will end and a degree of stability will return. The Foundation recognises it potentially has a key role to play in facilitating strategies for post-conflict protection and development of the cultural heritage resource in the country’s maritime zone. To prepare for this return to normality, this project aimed to:

1) Conduct a comprehensive baseline assessment (benchmarking) of the nature, extent, needs of, and threats to, the maritime archaeology resource in Syria.
2) Suggest a series of potential recommendations to further develop effective heritage management of the resource.

This represents the first step to developing a framework for the future investigation and protection of the country’s maritime heritage. When the project got underway, the Arcadia Fund-supported EAMENA project (Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa) was already undertaking similar work in Syria (albeit in fully terrestrial rather than coastal areas). Contact was sought with EAMENA to ensure that there would be no duplication of effort. Moreover, to facilitate data exchange and prevent proliferation of separate databases and methods, the Syria Benchmarking Project largely adopted the EAMENA method and used the EAMENA online database as the final data repository. Consequently, the Syria Benchmarking Project presented an opportunity to both address the specific needs of Syrian maritime heritage, and fill a gap in the EAMENA assessment.

Achieving the above aims were accomplished via the following:
1. Desk-based assessment of the physical maritime environment of Syria, including past changes in sea-level and coastal evolution.
2. Desk-based evaluation of published and unpublished sources relating to Syria’s maritime heritage.
3. Examination of satellite remote sensing data to identify unrecorded heritage sites in the coastal and shallow marine zones.
4. Undertaking a risk assessment using satellite remote sensing to record the nature and level of natural and anthropogenic threat facing the resource.
5. Compilation of the results of 1-4 above in a GIS database.


Fig. 2 A) Tabbat al-Hamman showing archaeological evidence identified by Braidwood (1940) overlaid onto to recent (19/02/2014) satellite image (Google Earth). Note also the recent impact in the mound from paths and housing. B) Historic Corona satellite image showing the mound and possibly the ancient breakwater. C) View of the ancient breakwater in the background from the top of the mound (from Braidwood 1940: Plate XXIV). D) Excavated foundations of the landward leg of the ancient breakwater (from Braidwood 1940: Plate XXV).

Assessment of the maritime heritage resource
A key achievement of this project is that is has consolidated a baseline understanding of Syrian maritime heritage from a range of sources, including published and unpublished, as well as satellite imagery. A grand total of 264 sites were compiled into a central database and range from Palaeolithic lithic scatters to modern shipwrecks. Importantly, these maritime sites include evidence for previously unrecorded or poorly-recorded coastal activity in the form of potential foreshore quarries and also a number of potential harbour sites (e.g. Figs. 1-3). The review of relative sea-level (RSL) change has also highlighted the complexity of palaeo-geographic change along the Syrian coast in all periods with implications for both submerged landscapes and harbour evolution (e.g. Fig. 4). 

Among the key observations are a comparative lack of offshore and underwater archaeological research in Syria with respect to both shipwrecks and submerged palaeo-landscapes. These are also presently hindered by a lack of marine geological research which could provide some basis for enhancing understanding of sea-level change, palaeo-geography, taphonomic conditions and preservation potential. The same is true of coastal geoarchaeological work, which is largely limited to the sites of Ras Ibn Hani and Tell Tweini and stands in contrast to the in-depth geoarchaeological projects in respect of harbour development elsewhere in the Levant (e.g. Beirut, Sidon, Tyre). 

Chronological distribution of research is also uneven, with most work in Syria’s coastal/marine zone focused on the Bronze and Iron Ages and to a lesser extent, the Classical periods. This has no doubt been influenced by the obvious and accessible nature of the evidence. Earlier periods (i.e. Palaeolithic and Neolithic) are not well researched along the Syrian coast, beyond a handful of landscape survey projects, while later periods (e.g. the Islamic periods) appear to receive very little archaeological attention. Even at those sites which have been investigated in detail, port development and harbour infrastructure appears to have only been examined to a relatively small degree, particularly compared to work that has been done onshore.

Assessment of the threats to maritime heritage resource
Unlike much of Syria, the coastal and maritime historic environment has not been directly affected by the conflict. However, the risk assessment has highlighted the increasing development of the Syrian coast in the last half-century with urban expansion, agricultural intensification and coastal re-configuration all prevalent (e.g. Figs. 2 and 4). The possibility also exists the coastal area, having escaped the worst of the conflict, is placed under increased pressure from population growth caused by population displacement from conflicted areas. It is also notable from the assessment of satellite imagery that coastal development did not cease during the conflict years. In all cases, the level of development control is unclear, but likely to be minimal for the coastal and underwater portions of the resource, given the lack of in-country maritime specialism. 

Natural threats are also present with clear areas of coastal erosion noted, which could be purely natural, or exacerbated by modification of sedimentary regimes through anthropogenic development. Material offshore is subject to potentially destructive process, such as storms, waves, and currents. In some cases, this can result in a gradual chipping away at the archaeological record. This represents a long-term threat compared to anthropogenic impacts, but is one which should be considered, particularly considering the lack of underwater work to date in Syria.

A number of recommendations were advanced on the basis of the above work. Research-led recommendations focused principally on extending survey offshore to enhance understanding of fully submerged sites (both wrecks and submerged landscapes), improved survey of coastal areas (including increased geoarchaeological study to better understanding coastal environmental change), and liaison with local authorities/specialists to identify undocumented coastal/underwater material which might be indicative of unrecorded remains. Management-led recommendations focused principally around capacity building in terms of maritime heritage management for local managers and the development of tools to assist them, such as a GIS platform which would build on the database generated by this project.

Fig. 3. Distribution of rectilinear rock cut features (possible quarries) along the Syrian coast located at A) north of Ras Ibn Hani, B) on the Jableh Plain coast and C) between Ras Ibn Hani and Latakia. In each case, the images were taken at low water and in calm sea conditions. All images from Google Earth (A and C taken 08/11/2016; B taken 25/03/2010)
Fig 4. Arab al-Milk, as imaged by historic and recent satellite imagery. A) Corona satellite imager (2/12/1970) showing prograding relict beach ridges at Arab al-Milk which are suggestive of an infilled bay. Proximity to Tell Daruk raises the possibility of silted up harbour in this area. B) Recent satellite imagery (ESRI World imagery: source Digital Globe Worldview 3 - 12/11/2015) of the same area showing considerable agricultural intensification which has removed or obscured the beach ridges. Also shown are built-up areas (yellow line) and the shoreline (red line) as digitized from the 1970 Corona image. Overlay onto the recent image also indicates that this area has also experienced expansion of built-up areas and coastal retreat between 1970 and 2015.
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