Geologists repair bullet damage to ancient Middle Eastern heritage sites

An oasis in the desert, Palmyra, Syria had once been a cultural meeting place in the first and second centuries AD and a touchpoint of many civilizations. The Islamist terrorist group ISIS damaged the ancient Syrian city with explosives and bulldozers, and now geologists seek to repair the damage and conserve sites like these.

Seeing that deliberate destruction pushed me into taking action. I am not a lawyer, I cannot do anything medical, but I do know rocks. I saw something that needed doing and built up a team,” says Lisa Mol, a geomorphologist at the University of the West of England in Bristol who specializes in rock art and rock deterioration. She is spearheading an initiative that is the first of its kind to quantify and catalogue the impacts of bullets in rock at a heritage site in the Middle East. Satellite imagery has been used extensively to identify damage in conflict areas, for example in Syria and Libya, however, there is a dearth of information about how stone structures weather after ballistic damage, despite the fact that ancient sites are often casualties of conflict and have been for centuries.

Mol’s five-woman team, comprised of a palaeontologist, two geomorphologists, a heritage specialist, and an archaeologist, returned in September from an expedition to Wadi Rum, a cultural heritage site in southern Jordan. Wadi Rum is home to rock paintings, engravings and archaeological remains that document millennia of human habitation, and the scars of both historical and recent conflict. The bullet damage at Wadi Rum spans decades, from guerilla conflict in the early twentieth century to damage from AK-47 machine guns in the past few months thought to have been caused by people using rocks for target practice. The rocks’ physical characteristics, or lithology, are also similar to those in areas such as Syria, where safety issues are too great for researchers to make expeditions.

The team aims to develop step-by-step guidelines for locals to identify and catalogue ballistic damage to heritage sites for use in Jordan and beyond. Residents could record and communicate their findings using an information sheet, or send images to researchers by e-mail or through an app, says Ms. Mol. The researchers must first determine which stone properties are most crucial for tracking ballistic damage and environmental degradation. She says, “We can’t simplify to that level without the high-level scientific understanding.”

There is more to heritage conservation than scientific understanding; conservation efforts need the buy-in of local residents and should take their wishes into account, Ms. Mol’s team says. Some residents think that certain bullet damage should not be repaired and should stand as a warning against vandalism or as a reminder of the conflict that caused it. “You can’t understand something as complex as the physical damage to heritage—in a very different social context and the conservation attached to it—without social outreach, ethnography and geology,” the team’s geographer, Kaelin Groom, says.