Case Studies

Posted: 25 November 2022

Mapping and protecting Africa's archaeological heritage

  • Programme:

    Preserving endangered culture

  • Focus area:

    Heritage sites

  • Grantee:

    University of Cambridge

  • Project:

    Mapping Africa’s Endangered Archaeological Sites and Monuments

  • Grant awarded:


  • Years:


Africa’s archaeological heritage is diverse and mesmerising but, apart from a handful of World Heritage sites, it is not widely known. Much of this heritage is facing increasing threats from multiple factors including climate change, unmonitored urban expansion, large-scale agricultural projects, mineral extraction, major infrastructure developments, looting and conflicts. Digital technologies and the internet offer an unprecedented opportunity to celebrate, document and preserve Africa’s rich heritage for future generations. As public understanding of the continent’s rich heritage grows, so will the levels of care and protection it is given.

Working closely with national heritage bodies, the Mapping Africa’s Endangered Archaeological Sites and Monuments (MAEASaM) project is mapping many thousands of archaeological sites in eight countries (Senegal, Mali, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana).

The project will use historical maps, publications and other legacy data alongside freely available satellite imagery to create a public access geospatial database, offering a comprehensive digital register of archaeological information integrated from disparate sources. MAEASaM is designing a sustainable platform with and for the countries involved. It will offer national authorities an additional tool for use in managing future development and for monitoring threats to their heritage sites.

The MAEASaM project is led by the University of Cambridge in partnership with the British Institute of Eastern Africa, University College London, the University of Exeter, IFAN-University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, Uppsala University, the University of the Witwatersrand Origins Centre and the University of York.

Project examples

Climate change and coastal archaeology in East Africa

Archaeological sites and monuments along eastern Africa’s Indian Ocean coast are threatened by rising sea levels, re-vegetation, urban expansion and climate change. Damage to these sites is leading to a massive loss of information on how their past inhabitants managed marine and coastal resources, interacted with trading partners and adopted new ideas, technologies and beliefs, and greatly reduces their value for heritage tourism. Mapping known and new sites will help identify those most in need of further study and protection.

Vegetation regrowth at Changai mosque, Kenya. (Photo: Angela Kabiru)

Agricultural expansion along the River Nile

With the introduction of mechanical irrigation in the 1960s, cultivation along the River Nile has dramatically expanded, with villages often having to relocate away from the river to make space for palm groves and fields. The project is using remote sensing to monitor this expansion and its effect on archaeological sites, as shown in the images below; the images below show the extent of agricultural expansion since 1968, with cultivated fields in red.

Well-preserved tumuli (burial mounds) documented in the area south of the island of el-Usheir at the Fifth Cataract, have been damaged and destroyed to make space for residential units. Other archaeological sites may be damaged or destroyed in the future as the cultivated strip and villages expand further.

Sites identified from visual inspection of recent Google Earth imagery. Background imagery sourced from: Left large and Left inset - the 1960-1972 U.S. Government CORONA satellites, courtesy of the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, University of Arkansas/U.S. Geological Survey; Right large - Landsat 8 (Bands 5, 4, and 3), courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey (acquired via EarthExplorer); Right inset - Bing Maps imagery, courtesy of TomTom, Bing, and Maxar.
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