VSFS Intern Spotlight: Creating the Afghan Cultural Damage Dataset

By Natalie Edwards, Washington University in St. Louis

My name is Natalie Edwards, and I am a Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) intern, working with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative for the 2017-18 school year. Recently, I have been working with three other VSFS interns to create an inventory of cultural heritage sites damage in Afghanistan. Students at four different U.S. universities, we correspond weekly over email and help each other by sharing our language skills and research techniques. We were each assigned different periods of time between 1989 and 2014, during the Soviet and U.S. wars in Afghanistan. We searched through the FACTIVA Global News Database using a unique string of cultural heritage related keywords to identify articles mentioning damage to cultural heritage sites.

Once we had compiled our lists of damaged site, we used Google Earth together with crowdsourced platforms such as Open Street Maps to pinpoint exact geographic coordinates. In some cases, news articles do not include the specific name of the mosque or market that suffered damage, providing only the city or province, making it difficult to determine precise coordinates. In other cases, sites are incorrectly identified. For example, I found two articles that mentioned terrorist attacks at Kabul’s Blue Mosque. A quick Google search revealed that the Blue Mosque is the gem of Mazari-i-Sharif, a city 300 kilometers north of Kabul. In fact, the name Mazar-i-Sharif means “Noble Shrine,” a reference to the resplendent blue-tiled mosque located at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in the heart of Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city.


Google Earth Satellite Image of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, location of Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Natalie Edwards.

Google Earth Satellite Image of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, location of Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Natalie Edwards.

I believe that the data my team is collecting for the Afghan Cultural Damage Dataset will help to keep these sites alive by making them visible, better equipping the global community to identify and protect these sites in the future.

As a student of Art History & Archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis with a second major in Economics, I am fascinated by the intersection of cultural heritage and public policy. While working on the Afghan Cultural Damage Dataset, I have used my skills in research and data analysis, developed through my Economic major coursework, to help build a dataset of cultural heritage sites that will be useful for identifying damaged sites. Through my research I have become interested in the phenomena of repeated damage – some sites such Mazar-i-Sharif’s Blue Mosque and Kabul’s Pul-i-Khishti mosque, the city’s largest mosque, have suffered repeated damage. This interest led me to design a project for my econometrics course where I will use Eviews, an econometric software, to determine what features of a cultural heritage site (such as its location, use for tourism, or its international significance) increase the likelihood that the site will suffer repeated damage during times of conflict.


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