UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2002
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The fortuitous journey of Eli Ruckenstein
To bear witness
Digital archaeology

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Protecting endangered treasures
Protecting endangered treasures

    Ancient Nineveh and Nimrud, two of the world’s greatest ancient archaeological treasures, are in serious danger of being lost forever.

    For the last decade, looting, war damage, lack of conservation and unstable economic conditions in Iraq, where the once-splendid sites are located, have placed them in jeopardy of eradication, a loss that in historical terms would be catastrophic. However, help may be on the way.

    As a result of efforts by UB and Samuel Paley, UB professor of classics and a leading archaeologist of the Ancient Near East, ancient Nineveh and Nimrud have been added to the 2002 World Monuments Fund Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites.

    With the encouragement of the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art, Paley and the UB College of Arts and Sciences nominated the sites for inclusion in the list and proposed a two-part overall action plan to preserve them.

    The World Monuments Fund (WMF) is a New York–based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and safeguarding the historic, artistic and architectural heritage of humankind. The fund’s biennial watch list is a call to action on behalf of threatened cultural-heritage monuments, bringing them to international attention and helping to raise the funds needed for their rescue.

    "Nimrud and Nineveh represent a conservation emergency that requires immediate attention," says Paley, who currently is helping to create a virtual reality version of the ancient palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud for an online museum of archaeology. (Go to http://www.learningsites.com/ NWPalace/NWP_Render_archives.htm to view renderings of the original palace.)

    "Archaeological sculptures from both sites still appear on the art market," Paley warns, "and in the case of Nimrud, there is still no site inventory to discourage the trade. The sculptures are not ancillary decorations, but integral parts of the structures themselves."

    With modest funding and WMF support, however, Paley says the market for looted architectural fragments can be reduced, and the sites can be thoroughly assessed by qualified heritage professionals and consequently stabilized, conserved and protected. A security regimen can be established as well, which may prevent further looting and damage to existing structures.

    For many landmarks, inclusion in the WMF list is their best hope for survival. It also may spur local governments to take an active role in protecting cultural icons in their regions. According to information provided on the WMF site, the problem of looting of archaeological sites in Iraq "has been compounded by sanctions imposed following the Gulf Crisis, which prohibit international preservation assistance to Iraq."

    However, Paley says the fact that the United Nations recently reduced its post-war sanctions against Iraq may permit the transmission of heritage assistance to that country. Highly visible international interest, coupled with the hiring of local workers, many of whom are unemployed, will, he hopes, instill a local interest in the sites’ well-being.

    According to the nominators, UNESCO has received permission from the U.N. Iraq Sanctions Committee to undertake work in Iraq, and the Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities and Heritage has pledged the full cooperation, assistance and support it has provided in the past.

    "Nimrud and Nineveh are fragile, damaged places," Paley says. "They need to be attended to soon, before they deteriorate further. The current Middle East conflict is likely to hamper our efforts. We hope it’s over quickly so we can begin our preservation work before it’s too late."

    Besides Nimrud and Nineveh, the 2002 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites includes 42 locations in Europe, 20 in Asia, 16 in Africa and the Middle East, and 22 in the Americas.

—Patricia Donovan

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