Safeguarding endangered heritage in conflict zones (December 2, 2016)


Safeguarding endangered heritage in conflict zones

The smooth progress and continuity of archaeological research are affected by a global geopolitical environment in flux. Looting, damage, destruction and direct threats against research teams all compromise the ongoing pursuit of excavations.

Safeguarding endangered heritage in situations of armed conflict is a key priority for the President of the Republic. On 2 and 3 December 2016, he will co-chair the Abu Dhabi conference with the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates. The aim of the international conference is to establish a specific international fund to meet the challenge of protection and to set up an international network of refuge countries to ensure that it works in practice.

A mirror held up to humanity and custodian of our collective memory, the archaeological heritage is a major target for extremists. By damaging that heritage, they directly attack one of the common goods of humankind. Sites, monuments, artworks and materials revealed by excavations stand for the permanence of a civilisation that has lasted thousands of years and formed the bedrock of eastern and western culture. That is why the ministry is committed to preserving these unique sites.

Different levels of destruction

In Iraq and Syria, long years of warfare have left archaeological sites, museums and research centres in danger as a result of the destruction of cultural assets and wanton vandalism. French archaeologists, present in the region since the mid-19th century, play an important part in considerations about the reconstruction of affected sites and research to help the countries concerned to preserve, make use of and enhance the scientific and cultural potential of an exceptional heritage.

Although it has not been possible to conduct field operations since 2011, France supported many missions in Syria until 2012 and has been very actively involved since then in establishing and renewing protective measures. Syrian archaeological sites, some of them the subject of missions dating back many years, have been affected to a varying extent. On the Ras Shamra-Ugarit site, for example, in the coastal region near Latakia, the mission opened in 1929 can continue to function thanks to its Syrian team. The situation is more dramatic for the missions situated inland or in border areas such as the Middle Euphrates region, where the flagship Mari site is located. The Syrian conflict has also made access very difficult to sites on the other side of borders, like Tell Arqa in northern Lebanon.

Although these problems concern sites in the Near and Middle East first and foremost, it should be remembered that some parts of the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa face the same threats and the same challenges.

How does research continue in these high-risk areas?

In addition to maintaining surveillance from a distance through site security, it is important to use documentation and publication to preserve both the memory of this heritage and the possibility of future work. At some sites the archaeological heritage has suffered irreversible damage, compromising any hope that their history may continue to be written. For others, however, the analysis, digitisation and interpretation of collected data help archaeologists to understand the nature and extent of damage and to envisage the future.

The continuation of research relies to a large extent on publication and on training new researchers. That training is constantly backed up by the award of grants and the organisation of specialist internships, in museums and universities and within research teams, for local students and professionals. Research itself is enriched by new questions about archaeology in times of war. Pursuing research will help to ensure that documentation is transmitted to the countries concerned once the conflict has been resolved.

3D reconstitution and modelling of archaeological sites that have partly or entirely disappeared also helps to raise awareness of the urgency of this preservation among the public at large. The French company Iconem specialises in this type of reconstitution and represents an important support for archaeological work.

What’s happening in the field?

Research can be continued partly by relocating certain missions to areas where the security situation is more favourable to field operations. It has been possible, for example, to relocate certain Syrian excavations to Iraqi Kurdistan, in the heart of what used to be Mesopotamia, open to international archaeology since 2011. The six French missions working there can be seen as cooperation initiatives for the protection and enhancement of the archaeological heritage of a country destabilised by 35 years of warfare.

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Updated: december 2016

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