Sunday, February 15, 2015

Damage to Libyan archaeology

by Salman Hameed

Libya seems to be descending into further chaos. Italy just closed its embassy there and I think US moved its operation in July of last year (with the closure of US embassy in Yemen as well - so much for the success of US policies in these areas).  But this Libyan civil war has its impact on science as well. A few months ago, I had posted a Science article that mapped damage to Syrian archaeological sites due to the ongoing conflict. Now Nature has an article on Libya:
Archaeological fieldwork in Libya is at a standstill. Four years after the Arab Spring and the February 2011 Libyan revolution that ended the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, violence remains rife. Recent escalations in fighting have injured and killed people and damaged the nation's cultural heritage, infrastructure and free press. Libyan monuments have been seriously damaged, including the Karamanli mosque, built in 1738 in the capital, Tripoli, and Islamic tombs that date to between the tenth and twelfth centuries at Zuwila, near the west-central town of Murzuq. This, along with concerns about the illicit trafficking of cultural materials, led Irina Bokova, the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to call for greater protection of Libyan cultural heritage in November last year.
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I have worked in Libya since 1990. My last field trip to the Messak plateau in the southwest ended abruptly in February 2011 with an emergency evacuation on a military aircraft. Before the revolution, I spent three months each year in the desert studying the prehistory of the Messak and nearby Tadrart Acacus mountains, which lie close to the border with Algeria, famous for their 9,000-year-old rock art. Since then, scientific and cultural relations between Libya and the international community have stagnated. Archaeological tourism — a major source of revenue and jobs for locals such as the Tuareg and Tebu people, the two major Saharan ethnic groups in Libya — has stopped.
Here is a map from Nature identifying some places where sites have been damaged:


Trafficking is the biggest concern and I hope that this can tackled at a broader international level:
Perhaps the greatest threat to Libya's diverse heritage is the trafficking of archaeological materials, for profit or to fund radical groups. This has already been documented in Syria and Iraq7. No one has been able to fully assess the situation in Libya. Going to work among the black smoke of grenades, the men and women of the Libyan Department of Antiquities are doing their best. But museums are closed and the little activity left in the field is limited to the north. 
The situation seems dire and the article understandably ends with a plea:
Fieldwork is vital to research and central to fundraising in archaeology. But in Libya — and other violence-wracked countries — archaeology as we have practised it has come to an end. Lengthy excavation campaigns will be impossible for years, if not generations. Researchers must imagine a different future based on other methods. 
International funding and attention must return to scientific studies of Libyan heritage. Research should focus on existing materials in museums and collections. Granting bodies should give greater priority to research that can be carried out on computers or in the laboratory. Sample analyses of archaeological materials can be done in international labs, where Libyan scientists should work and be trained. 
Building an online library of rock-art sites, with the involvement of Libyan students and colleagues from other countries, would help Libyan scientists to overcome their isolation and regain a sense of identity. Museum collections that span from remote prehistory to the Islamic cultures should be digitized and made freely available to a global audience. Unpublished collections held by international teams should also be digitized and shared online. Remote analyses of satellite imagery, for example, has been used to reveal lost Saharan cities (see go.nature.com/8y1gxh). 
International cooperation between local and foreign groups working in Libya must be supported. Travel funding and visas for Libyan scientists to work temporarily overseas should be found. And mobility programmes for scientists such as the European Union's Erasmus Mundus should be exploited — Libya's application numbers have been historically low. Energy companies and others with commercial interests in Libya should be encouraged to work with local stakeholders to help to train local personnel in scientific research. 
Without these steps, archaeological research in Libya, already moribund, will soon die. It would be gravely disappointing and paradoxical if after years of neglect under the Gaddafi regime Libyan archaeological heritage is once again be abandoned. As well as a failure of the 2011 revolution, it would be a missed opportunity for a generation of young Libyan archaeologists — and a tragedy for the safeguarding of monuments and sites of universal and outstanding value.
Here is a link to the full article but you will need a subscription to read it.

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