Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 9th October 2016

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Academics fight to protect Libyan antiquities

While travel to Libya is almost impossible, foreign academics say a great deal can be done to support Libyan colleagues in protecting their heritage.


Damaged statues in the suburbs of Shahat, east of Benghazi

A Libyan man walking past damaged statues in the ancient Greek city of Cyrene, a colony of the Greeks of Thera (Santorini) and a principal city in the Hellenic world founded in 630BC, located in the suburbs of the Libyan eastern town of Shahat, east of Benghazi.

London - “We can’t go to Libya and our students can’t go to Libya but we are building a creative resource for a new generation of scholars.” That was the message from Corisande Fenwick, a lecturer in Mediterranean Archaeology at University College London, to Libya Matters workshop participants.

The event, organised by the Centre for Hellenic Studies at Kings College London and the Society for Libyan Studies, discussed the safeguarding of Libyan heritage, highlighting the historical and cultural importance of the North African country.

While travel to Libya is almost impossible, foreign academics and archaeologists say that a great deal can be done to support Libyan colleagues in protecting their heritage through information gathering and training programmes.

For instance, the Society for Libyan Studies is digitalising 3,000 items from its archives and hopes to create online exhibitions. It also set up the Libyan Antiquities at Risk (LAaR) project – an online photographic reference collection that will help safeguard Libyan monuments threatened by destruction and looting.

The project aims at recording and disseminating information about Libyan funerary sculptures of the Hellenistic, Roman and late Roman periods which are under threat of being sold on the illegal art market. The sculptures are particularly vulnerable to being removed from monuments due to their peripheral location in ancient settlements.

Hafed Walda, an adviser to the Libyan Department of Antiquities, described security as the greatest challenge for Libyan antiquities.

“The lack of security hinders cooperation between local and foreign groups, research on materials in museums and collections which are now stored away, the protection of sites due to the spread of arms and lack of law enforcement and the prevention of illicit trade in antiquities,” Walda said.

He noted that the Libyan Department of Antiquities was still functioning because local communities are protecting their archaeological heritage. “In the communities everybody knows each other,” he said. “If there is a breakdown of the communities you will have total chaos. It is not total chaos yet but there is a possibility.”

“Libya needs a government that has the protection of cultural heritage on its list of priorities, encourages heritage awareness and finds solutions for the communities in areas surrounding important archaeological sites to halt urban encroachment into sites. One that is capable of enlisting the international community to help in the development of the heritage sector and has a long-term plan for sustainable tourism development,” Walda said.

Collaboration between academics, the Libyan Antiquities Service, cultural heritage operators, police, professional antiquities dealers, museums and other institutions constitutes an essential part of the LAaR work.

Also speaking at the workshop, David Mattingly, professor of Archaeology at the University of Leicester, talked about the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project, established in January 2015 to respond to the increasing threats to archaeological sites. The project uses satellite imagery to record and make available information about archaeological sites under threat.

He said satellite images of al-Jufra oases revealed that, out of 85 archaeological sites, 68 had been damaged. “They are of international significance as the likely centre for several Berber polities and for their crucial role in Trans-Saharan trade. The surviving sites are under threat primarily from construction and cultivation,” he said.

Mattingly drew attention to the destruction of tenth-century Islamic tombs in the desert town of Zuwila and the targeted destruction of Sufi marabout shrines, simple enduring structures built over the tombs of respected mystics. He pointed out that digital lists of looted antiquities could be seen as “hit lists”.

“The message to looters is that if what you have stolen is on this list, you won’t be able to sell it. It is a way of reducing demand for looted items,” Mattingly said.

The British Foreign Office warning against travel to Libya has made it impossible for British archaeologists and academics to conduct training in the country but training programmes for Libyan archaeologists have been organised in Britain.

Paul Bennett, director of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, organised training for Libyans on British archaeological sites to assist them in excavation of the Haua Fteah Cave in Cyrenaica. The cave has been regarded as one of the most significant for prehistoric occupation in North Africa and is arguably one of the most important ancient caves in the world.

Professor Charlotte Roueche, senior research fellow in Digital Hellenic Studies at Kings College, emphasised that working to provide the tools for a better future for Libyan archaeologists was vital.

“We can’t provide a time scale for that better future but it is definitely going to come,” Roueche said.