Milstein faculty fellow's course examines tech's role in cultural preservation

A new course this semester, ANTHR 3200 Heritage Forensics, explores how the latest technologies are reshaping cultural preservation. The work the 20 students in the class are doing is so relevant, the U.S. State Department has expressed interest in their work.


The course was co-developed by this year’s Milstein Faculty Fellow in the Milstein Program in Technology & Humanity in the College of Arts & Sciences, Adam T. Smith, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Anthropology (A&S) and Lori Khatchadourian, associate professor of Near Eastern studies (A&S), who will join Smith as a Milstein Faculty Fellow in the Fall.


“The Milstein Program is, to my mind, the very model of a Cornell education,” Smith said. “It embraces technology, but at every turn asks why these new tools are important, interesting or useful. It is driven by the priorities of humanistic inquiry but always asks itself how such work can be accomplished most effectively.”

The Heritage Forensics course highlights major themes from Smith and Khatchadourian’s research, examining sites where cultural heritage has been caught up in armed conflicts, from the former Yugoslavia to Syria, to China and Ukraine. 

“Heritage forensics requires collaboration,” Khatchadourian said. “It involves working with complex datasets, advanced spatial technologies, and difficult humanistic questions, and all this cannot be done alone.”

Smith added that “the best part of Heritage Forensics is learning from our students. They come to the class with diverse interests and skills, and they bring that to the projects they undertake. Their research has provided new documentation for known cases of heritage destruction and illuminated cases we did not know well. And the work they are doing could have a real impact in the world. I’ve already had conversations with a contact at the U.S. State Department about interest in the students’ findings.”

Undergraduate Ashley Koca ‘25, for example, has dedicated her honors thesis to studying the use of technology in conflict zones and is currently a Cultural Heritage Preservation Intern for the Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) program under the U.S. Department of State. 

“My project with VSFS is concerned with creating a StoryMap with ArcGis to highlight and describe cultural heritage preservation efforts across Central and South Asia,” Koca said. “This project is the first of its kind and could not be possible without the skills that I learned through Heritage Forensics.” 

Those skills rest at the intersection of technology and humanity that defines the Milstein Program and the research of its faculty fellows. Smith and Khatchadourian also co-direct the research program Caucasus Heritage Watch, a platform that monitors and documents endangered and damaged heritage using satellite imagery and open-source media.

The project documents cultural destruction in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Their work emphasizes the importance of geolocation, earth observing satellite data and transparency in both documenting the existence of heritage sites, as well as the destruction of irreplaceable historic sites. By meticulously mapping landmarks and regularly monitoring sites using satellite imagery, Caucasus Heritage Watch seeks to document heritage destruction in real-time in the hope of holding perpetrators accountable. At present, Smith and Khatchadourian say the greatest threat is to Armenian heritage in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which Azerbaijan seized in 2020 and 2023, resulting in the forced displacement of more than  100,000 people — almost the entire Armenian population of the region. 

Smith and Khatchadourian’s work in Armenia “is continuously inspiring, and it is truly amazing to see their research-reporting develop in real-time and in class,” Koca said. “While I did not have the chance to meet Professor Smith before this semester, he has definitely become one of the faculty members I am most influenced by and hope to emulate. It is professors like Professor Smith that make me excited to pursue a career in this field.”

Hannah Mitchell is a communications assistant for the College of Arts and Sciences.

More News from A&S

Adam Smith points to satellite image.