Hayden Bassett looks at satellite image showing Russian missile damage near the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial on the outskirts on Kyiv. Randy Walker photo

On March 3, the BBC reported that a Russian missile attack damaged a Holocaust memorial site in Ukraine, where, during World War II, German SS troops massacred thousands of Jews at Babyn Yar, a large ravine on the edge of Kyiv.

In the confusion of war, exact information is both critical and hard to come by. But there’s somebody in Martinsville helping the Ukrainians keep track of damage to their cultural and historical sites.

One of the memorials at Babyn Yar in Kyiv, Ukraine, as seen in 2008. Courtesy of Roland Geider.

“This is what I was just looking at, Babyn Yar, the Holocaust site,” said Hayden Bassett, pointing to satellite imagery on a  computer screen at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville. “So this is the site right here. One thing that we were able to quickly identify, as soon as that news came out, is that the site wasn’t actually hit. This was part of the confusion around that. So this right  here is the tower that was being targeted, and the building beside it that was hit. But this is  the actual site right here, the monument being right here, so it is adjacent. We can let the officials monitoring this, but also the folks on the ground, whose heritage this is, we can let them know that we’re not seeing any major impacts to that site.”

Bassett, 32, is from Martinsville. His father and older brother are in the furniture industry. He has degrees in archaeology and anthropology from the University of Virginia and William and Mary. He joined the museum in 2020.

The work of Hayden Bassett and his team at the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab is all done on computer. Randy Walker photo.

“I direct the archaeology department here,” he said. “And within the archaeology department, there’s kind of two labs. One, the traditional archaeology lab where we do the  types of archaeological fieldwork and lab work you would expect.  And then also, within the archaeology department, is the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, which is where we do all of the satellite-based work,  including the work in support of the efforts in Ukraine right now.”

Before coming to the museum, Bassett worked for the Navy as a civilian archaeologist.

“While I was there, I was working on some methods that would allow us to do  archaeology abroad, and monitor archaeological sites abroad without physically being there. And so a lot of that involved leveraging a lot of the DoD capabilities around satellite sensors and optical satellites, able to detect  where sites are, but also to monitor them after we’ve identified them to  make sure that our own activities abroad aren’t impacting them in any way.

We don’t want to destroy a host nation’s cultural heritage. But also, we could also provide that information to a partner nation and say, hey, just so you know, here are a series of archaeological sites we’ve identified. So, kind of a form of cultural diplomacy.”

It wasn’t hard to get the military to buy into his work, Bassett said. 

“It’s because they are legally required to do this…for a couple of reasons. One is the 1954 Hague Convention. And that’s an international treaty…that the U.S. is now a party to since the Obama administration. Parties to this international treaty must protect cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict, so they must protect it from their own activities abroad, and they must protect it in any other type of effort in which they’re involved abroad, even if it’s not their own activities. And so, that includes things like — cultural heritage shall never be a target for armed conflict. Even when there might be a military target in close proximity to a cultural heritage site like an archaeological site. Those types of decisions must inform military decision-making. The only caveat being, a cultural heritage site can lose its protected status, if it can be  justified as a military necessity. And that is actually phrasing that goes back to Eisenhower during World War II.

“Now beyond  the Hague 1954 Convention, which I should say is very important for the current conflict in Ukraine–it classifies some of  these activities as a war crime, or impacts to cultural areas as war crime–but beyond the Hague 1954 convention, the U.S. also protects cultural heritage for abroad through executive order.”

How does protecting cultural heritage fit into the museum’s mission, which is “to interpret Virginia’s natural heritage within a global context in ways that are relevant to all citizens of the Commonwealth”?

“Nothing in the natural and cultural world exists without global perspective,” said museum executive director Joe Keiper.  “The CHML team applies their skill set to conserve Virginia Indian sites from significant issues such as potential hurricane damage and sea level rise, and do so in a way better than anybody else can. Protecting global heritage with their methods and technology keeps what we have in Virginia in context, while they apply their unique resources to an issue at hand that impacts us all. Russia cannot escape accountability for atrocities conducted, and the Ukrainian culture should not be erased. The work of the CHML will help ensure this does not happen.”

Answering the same question, Bassett said: “I would broadly say that archaeology and anthropology are certainly what we would call sciences that are typical  for a natural history museum, but they are a discipline that does bridge the sciences and humanities quite a bit. So archaeology is a subfield of anthropology. And anthropology is a social science. So we are, we are certainly not in the discipline of the hard sciences, like our colleagues are. Most of my colleagues here are biologists by training. So we aren’t necessarily aligned perfectly with  them. However, we do share a lot of the methodological tools, including some  of the conceptual tools, as in the scientific method, to arrive at some of our conclusions. And that includes a lot of the work that we do  for inherently cultural questions. 

“Now, when I say cultural heritage, it’s cultural heritage broadly defined. It includes archaeological sites, museums, archives and the collections within. It includes religious spaces, cathedrals, churches, mosques, temples. It includes public monuments, things that might be of local historical significance that, you know, we might not necessarily identify as incredibly significant, but a local community in Ukraine might identify as the most significant.

“I came here in August of ’20. So just a few months in, I asked if I could build a lab around this methodology of using satellites, for archaeological questions and for archaeological monitoring. And [museum director] Dr. [Joe] Keiper was immediately supportive of the idea. He saw the capabilities, saw the potential…so it was a way to expand our audience, you know, really using an interesting methodology. And so, January 2021, the Virginia Museum of Natural History signed an MoU [memorandum of understanding] with the Smithsonian Institution…specifically with a unit at the Smithsonian called the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. That allowed us to leverage some of the tools that the federal government has at their disposal to ask some of these questions and to do some of these types of activities.

“So we’re working on a few different projects around the world right now.  But Ukraine is certainly front and center. One of the things that anyone needs in able to monitor cultural heritage sites in a conflict zone, or a natural disaster setting, is…a comprehensive map of where cultural heritage sites are. So the first activity that we undertook…was a comprehensive mapping effort of all of the cultural heritage that we could identify in Ukraine. And so today, we have over  26,000 cultural heritage sites that we’ve identified. We pull it from every source you can imagine. We go to academic sources, archaeological reports, books that identify maps and location…historic atlases, even stuff that’s stuck in gray literature and thus far unpublished.

“So what you’re seeing on the screen up there is satellite imagery from yesterday,  in Kyiv. You can see some of the little squares down below at the bottom.  Those are all different images and captured daily or every other day. These are actually [from] commercial satellites, that the U.S. federal government uses for different purposes. Through our partnership with the Smithsonian, we’re able to leverage access to those satellites.”

Bassett also uses a different set of satellites that capture infrared heat data. These satellites capture “a signal that might indicate that an explosion has occurred on this spot on this day at this time. And we use that as our guide. So, as you can imagine, Ukraine is a large country, we need very specific starting places.  Once we have a indication that there’s been activity, kinetic activity near one of our cultural heritage sites, in our databases, we then move to tasking a satellite. So we check and see if there’s new imagery. If there’s not new imagery at that site, we can actually tell the satellite to image this spot.  And usually within 24 hours, we will have a image returned to us if there’s no cloud cover. And that’s kind of our workflow for going from a range of potential impacts to  confirming impacts and then to reporting.

“Through our partnership with the Smithsonian, we do get this information to Ukraine. So this isn’t just a Defense Department effort. We are working closely with other federal agencies to make sure that this information gets in the hands of those who need it most on the ground. So it’s various museum professionals, cultural heritage professionals that are actually doing the legwork on the ground.”

Bassett’s work does not prevent damage, but it does provides documentation and sets the stage for remediation and recovery. “So that eventually, we can immediately move to begin stabilization, recovery of collections if you need to. Putting a new roof on a cultural heritage site that’s now exposed to the elements, those types of timely activities. So we’re trying to get ahead of it.”

Bassett heads a team of six in the Cultural Heritage Lab. Given the urgency of the situation, “I think most of the people on the team are putting in anywhere from 12- to 18-hour days on this.”

The New York Times reported recently that Bassett and some other specialists around the country were expected to join the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

“I don’t think I’m allowed to give you an exact date. But I can now tell you that that commissioning is going to happen very, very soon,” he said. “It is the reactivated Monuments Men unit. So it is the direct descendant of the World War II civil affairs officers that were the monuments officers.”

Subject of a 2014 movie, the Monuments Men recovered artwork stolen by the Nazis. 

Bassett won’t be resigning from the museum, nor will he wear a captain’s uniform every day,  “because it’s an Army reserve capacity. This is my reserve role rather than an active full-time role. We will be reserve officers spread out in units across the country. But I will be in uniform performing similar duties when and where I’m told to, basically.”

Randy Walker

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was formerly a staff writer on (as it...