Along the dusty banks of Iraq’s Euphrates River, nine teams of Western archeologists are frantically digging in the sand in an effort to save priceless relics doomed by a massive dam that will flood the area next winter. In the bombed-out refugee camps in Tyre, in southern Lebanon, an expert team from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is probing the rubble left by Israeli warplanes. They fear that millennia-old monuments to Phoenician culture may have been shattered by modern military conflict. And in the exotic highlands of North Yemen, the legendary home of the Queen of Sheba, North American archeologists despair as local villagers dismantle ancient temples and palaces, using the stone to build their own homes.
Throughout the Middle East, in a vivid clash of priorities, Western archeologists watch in horror as more and more sites are destroyed by the twin threats of the 20th century—sectarian warfare and industrial development. Archeology conducted in stable countries, with the blessing of the host government, can produce spectacular results, such as the Madain Salih excavation in northwest Saudi Arabia. But, increasingly, the birthplace of Western culture is in danger of becoming a
graveyard for archeological treasures.
“Archeology is always at the bottom of the pile in developing countries,” explains Louis Levine, curator-in-charge of the Royal Ontario Museum’s West Asian department in Toronto. While he does not argue with the priorities of the area’s governments, he is saddened that the aims of archeology and development often seem polarized. “It’s a great
tragedy, but with a little planning there are ways in which both sides can profit,” he argues.
He cites the relationship he built with the owner of a brick kiln near his project in Godin Tepe, in western Iran, in the early 1970s. Instead of digging up the ground on or near the site to feed the kiln, the owner was persuaded to cart away already sifted soil, relieving the project of one of its biggest headaches. Now, Levine is faced with even larger obstacles to any future Iranian digging—the volatile political situation and the war with Iraq, both of which have prevented his return for four years. Even when he does go back, he is not sure what he will find. Last fall he received word from Iran that an Iraqi bomber had mistaken the historic ramparts of the 2,500-year-old Godin Tepe fortress for a modern installation and scattered bombs over the site.
Archeologists are worried that the continuing war will also endanger digs in Iraq. This summer a Canadian team, led by Cuyler Young, a curator in the West Asian department at the ROM and a member of one of the three Canadian teams working in the region, completely excavated a ninth-century BC Assyrian signal post that had formed a critical link in a line of fortifications along the Euphrates. The team was hoping to start digging in the upper Tigris River Valley next year as part of another sal-
vage operation before an irrigation dam floods the rich area. However, because of the need for manpower on the front, Iraq has informed the Canadians that it can only give them security personnel for a small area, kilometres from the remote regions where they would like to dig. “We have the option of starting a project we are not really interested in hoping to move on later, or not going at all,” says Young. His decision is also being influenced by the sobering knowledge that rebellious Kurdish tribesmen are active in the area and currently hold 44 foreign hostages.
Aside from political conflicts, the most pressing threats to archeological
sites come from the attempts of Middle Eastern governments to catapult their people into the 20th century. With each new infusion of Western capital and oil revenues, local development ministries are embarking on ambitious construction projects. Hydroelectric and irrigation dams are now being built on most major rivers. Highways linking remote areas, and factories producing a variety of consumer and export goods, are under way in many countries. Looking at the heady pace of industrialization, Young predicts that salvage archeology may well be the only type that the Middle East will see for 20 years. “We can no longer have the luxury of working on
a site for 15 years; I have one Iraqi colleague who is working just ahead of the bulldozers for a new Arab freeway,” he notes. “Sites he worked on last year have now been paved over.”
While grab-and-run archeology is not the preference of the profession, most archeologists are heartened that many governments appear to share their concerns about preserving the past in principle, even though cultural departments do not carry much political clout. In Syria the General Directorate of Museums and Antiquities is actively encouraging foreign expeditions to explore an area of the Kabour River in eastern Syria due to be flooded by a dam. In Los Angeles Dan Shimabuku, a professor at the University of California’s International Institute for Mesopotamian Area Studies, is busily piecing together a year’s worth of Syrian finds, hoping to fill in gaps about life in the Babylonian period. He says that although the Syrians provide a great deal of help, they are still hindered by the lack of a sense of urgency. “There are still so many unexcavated sites,” he says, “they feel that if they lose a few they still have plenty more.”
Archeologists are also finding that the economic needs of local residents can be as difficult to deal with as bureaucratic laissez-faire. Shimabuku reports that his Syrian site was constantly disrupted by people trying to build houses or plant gardens. “It often happened that I would be digging on one side of a hill while someone was burrowing out the other side to plant something. I would call the police, but the fines are so small the person would be back in a few weeks,” he recalled.
More insidious is the pilfering of sites to feed lucrative private antiquities markets. In recent years Middle Eastern governments have tried to clamp down on thieves by insisting on guards at sites. Egypt has some of the strictest regulations but still cannot control the exodus of ancient finds. Guards are usually poorly paid, and generous bribes are an unavoidable temptation in many countries.
Increasingly, archeologists are in a race against time. In Egypt the Aswan Dam’s higher water table is allowing salt to corrode the famous monuments to the pharaohs. Close to Cairo the sandstone of the pyramids and the Sphinx is being dissolved by pollution and acid rain, as are parts of the Greek Parthenon. War, which created many of the empty cities emerging from the sand, is working again to destroy them. Modern saturation bombing leaves little behind, and archeologists may be left to wonder what solutions to modern puzzles would have been found if old conflicts had not re-emerged and finally wiped out the warriors’ roots.
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