Archaeological Heritage as a Target during War

Pavlo Shydlovskyi (Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukrainian State Institute for Cultural Heritage), Serhii Telizhenko (Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) and Vsevolod Ivakin (Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine)

Military conflict causes irreparable damage to both nature and culture. This is reflected in ecological and humanitarian disasters, the devaluation of human life and the destruction of cultural heritage. In war, cultural heritage becomes one of the most vulnerable parts of social life. The goal of Putin's war against Ukraine is not only the seizure of its territory and subjugation of the Ukrainian people, but also the destruction of their identity, history and public memory. For this reason, objects of cultural heritage have become a special target for the enemy. See Figure 9. Given that the war in Ukraine has been going on since 2014, the destroyed or damaged cultural heritage objects number in the thousands, especially in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as well as in Crimea.

Figure 9. Stanychno, Luhansk reg., 2016. Arrangement of firing positions on the mound. Photo by Serhii Telizhenko.

Figure 10. Toshkivka, Luhansk reg., 2016. Arrangement of protective structures on the mound. Photo by Serhii Telizhenko.

At the same time, the broader and secondary consequences of hostilities are particularly devastating for archaeological sites, given the non-restorability of archaeological objects, the inextricable connection of sites with the landscape and ecological environment and the universally-applicable nature of the information that can be obtained during research. The conflict in Ukraine has caused the large-scale destruction of historical landscapes. See Figure 10. Thousands of archaeological sites—both those undergoing archaeological investigations as well as ones that had yet to be opened—have been damaged. Currently, cultural heritage protection activities in Ukraine focus mainly on ‘visible’ objects, such as architectural monuments, religious and historical buildings and objects of monumental art.

Monitoring the state of archaeological heritage objects in Ukraine is a challenge. The search for and recognition of sites is difficult because they exist in an ‘unmanifested’ state. The vast majority of archaeological sites are not included on the State Register of Immovable Monuments of Ukraine. Moreover, the necessary monument protection measures are not applied consistently throughout all territories. The specificity of archaeological sites is that their discovery is often directly related to catastrophic events: in the current case, the destruction of landscape resulting from military operations.


Due to the extensive military operations currently happening in Ukrainian territories, archaeological monuments are under particular threat due to the following factors:

  1. In peacetime, the registry of archaeological heritage was not undertaken with the proper degree of thoroughness, which led to the ’dropping’ of most archaeological objects - settlements, hillforts, burial mounds and cemeteries - from both the State Register of Immovable Monuments of Ukraine as well as regional monument lists.
  2. The vast majority of archaeological heritage objects are ‘hidden’ by the landscape or later transformations. Therefore, conclusions about the presence or absence of archaeological layers in a certain territory can be made only through field survey of the territories by specialists.
  3. In those territories currently undergoing military operations, active and extensive landscape transformations are taking place, associated with both the direct consequences of damage by explosive means (mines, shells, rocket fire, etc.), as well as with the arrangement of fire and observation posts, fortifications and the laying of communication lines, among other factors.
  4. During military operations, there is an increase in looting and robbery in relation to objects of archaeological heritage. At the same time, it should also be stated that the state of Ukraine is not currently actively exercising the protection of archaeological sites.

Challenges for archaeological heritage during wartime

The most significant and dominant formations within the historical landscape suffer the greatest damage due to the fact that they are often placed in the most convenient locations for the construction of modern fire and defence positions. It should be mentioned that among the significant challenges for Ukrainian archaeology is the use of archaeological sites as military objects as well as illegal excavations in occupied territories, the looting of regional museums and the increased sale of archaeological artefacts. During the Russian attack and occupation of a part of the territory of Ukraine, activities from criminal groups who illegally obtain archaeological artefacts and objects d’art with the intent of reselling them to private collectors (both in Ukraine and abroad) have risen.

In the following, we present some of the concrete issues affecting Ukrainian cultural heritage at present, including:

  • Significant changes in the historical landscape caused by destruction associated with military operations; see Figure 11 (left).
  • Movement of the soil during the installation of defences, fortification structures, observation and firing points; see Figure 11 (right).
  • Significant damage as a result of bombings and missile attacks on almost the entire territory of Ukraine.
  • The use of archaeological monuments (burial mounds, ramparts, ditches, hillforts) as modern military facilities
  • Increase in the activities of marauding and organized treasure hunting groups in relation to objects of archaeological heritage
  • Increased demand for archaeological artefacts and objects d’art from Ukraine on looting forums and social networks during the war
  • A potential threat to archaeological sites located in the ‘gray zone’ and in the occupied territories;
  • Acts of vandalism
  • The absence of control over the monuments by State executive bodies in the field of cultural heritage protection and the inactivity of relevant structures
  • The urgency of ensuring the monitoring of the state of preservation of archaeological heritage and preventing the theft of archaeological objects under wartime conditions.


Figure 11. (Left) A crater from a mine hit the surface of the multi-layered settlement of Zanivske-I, Luhansk region, 2016. Photo by Serhii Telizhenko. (Right) Toshkivka, Luhansk reg., 2016. Arrangement of protective structures on the mound. Photo by Serhii Telizhenko.

Suggestions for moving forward

We suggest that a necessary addition to martial law is to strengthen control over both moveable and immobile objects of archaeological heritage. Organizing the monitoring of the state of objects in the liberated territories requires significant organizational and legal foundations, but it is nonetheless crucial to preserving the priceless treasures (both known and yet to be discovered and recorded) of Ukraine. See Figures 12-13.

Figure 12. A lecture by S. Telizhenko for the military about the protection of archaeological heritage in wartime and the transfer of artefacts discovered by Ukrainian sappers to the funds of the Popasna Museum of Local Lore. S. Ioffe. December 2020. Photo by K. Radionova (journalist of Internet resource Popasna City).

Figure 13. A lecture for the military and civilians on the protection of archaeological heritage in wartime and the transfer of the brochure "Archaeology and War" for further distribution among the military. Severodonetsk, December 2020. Photo by V. Vybornyi

Monitoring the state of sites faces a number of difficulties, especially related to the real and present danger of being in the proximity of military installations and operations. As mentioned above, accessing some sites is complicated by the fact that some are currently in use as military posts. On the other hand, the landscape transformations caused by military operations can also lead to the discovery of new archaeological sites, though archaeologists must then be vigilant to ensure that the new data is recorded. Monitoring the state of sites offers challenges that caring for a standing building does not: while one must guard against damage to the site, at the same time, scholars also obtain information through the careful destruction of cultural layers. In order for information not to be lost when those cultural layers are destroyed, this requires the direct presence of researchers on site, who are available to conduct the necessary archaeological research and scientific interpretation of the data obtained. Therefore, it should be stated that only a team of professional archaeologists who have sufficient field research experience and the necessary knowledge for the cultural-chronological attribution of sites would be able to accurately assess and record the damage to a site, thereby providing an accurate estimate of the degree of preservation.

Due to the length of time necessary for decision making within the framework of the existing state monument protection executive bodies, representatives of a number of scientific, educational, museological and public organizations have created a working group to address this problem: the Archaeological Landscapes Monitoring Group (ALMG). This group includes archaeologists and site-preservationists from the following organizations: the Ukrainian State Institute for Cultural Heritage, the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, the Faculty of History of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and several non-governmental organizations. The purposes of this group are to establish the degree of damage to known archaeological sites, to make changes to existing monument protection documentation, to aid in the discovery of new archaeological sites that were partially destroyed as a result of military actions and landscape transformations and to create a digital map and database of damaged landscapes. In the future, this work will become the basis for determining the damages suffered by Ukrainian cultural heritage as a result of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation.

The work of the monitoring group is related to the direct study of landscapes, which includes both laboratory work (analysis of space images, GIS analysis, inventory description of discovered objects, and restoration) as well as field research. The latter involves the presence of the group in the field while they perform the following tasks:

  • Remote survey of objects by means of UAVs (drones, quadcopters);
  • Instrumental survey of the damaged portions of archaeological sites (tacheometric, theodolite surveying, 3D scanning, creation of three-dimensional models);
  • Determination of the presence of archaeological layers by archaeological survey (clearing of crops, test pits, etc.);
  • Creating plans of damaged areas of the landscape and obtaining the necessary information for the development of monument protection documentation (account card, passport).

NB: It is important that the monitoring of historical landscapes in the newly liberated territories must take place with the presence of paramilitary guards and explosive-detecting services and an appropriate level of security.

One result of the group’s activities is the development of an interactive questionnaire, the purpose of which is to record the destruction of archaeological heritage directly in the field in order to create a database and map of damaged archaeological sites and territories. It should be noted that the recording of the destruction of sites as a result of military aggression should take place not only in the territories where military actions took place, but throughout the entire territory of Ukraine. It is important to identify not only damage caused by bombing, rocket and mortar attacks, but also damage caused by the construction of fortifications, roads and other building works related to the organization of rear defence. These activities should begin immediately with the aim to complete the most thorough analysis of the destroyed parts of the landscape, new archaeological finds and the future assessment of the loss and damage caused to Ukrainian archaeological heritage due to the war. We planned to start the monitoring process in the near future, focusing on the territory of Kyiv and the Chernihiv regions, which were liberated at the beginning of April 2022 and in which demining has already taken place. In these areas, the process of reconstructing buildings and re-establishing communications has already begun. These works are partially supported by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) through the Research Scholarship Project ‘Ukrainian archaeological heritage, threatened by war: saving and protection’ under the leadership of Alla Bujskikh (Institute of Archaeology NAS of Ukraine).

Archaeology matters

Archaeological heritage has a special status due to its fragility and finite nature as well as the lack of sufficient predictability of the results produced by research in this field. Every archaeological study is an encounter with the unknown, which can significantly affect our understanding of the diversity of human behaviour across the board.

Attitudes towards archaeological sites which are often devoid of relevant ethnic or national significance, is a ‘litmus test’ of civilization; it reflects a tolerance and respect for ‘other’ cultures. For this reason, archaeological knowledge is a very effective tool in the struggle for rationality, against xenophobia, clericalism, and ideas of national exclusivity.

Ukrainians’ struggle for independence is also a struggle for humanistic values, among which respect for the cultural and natural heritage of humankind is of particular importance.

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