Sunday, September 16, 2012

This Is the Future of Archaeological Site Protection. Are Heritage Protection Advocates Listening?

40 hours, a GPS tracker, a radio transmitter, and a used video camera. Cost: about $300. Results: the equivalent of an almost-realtime satellitelike monitor's view. This is exactly the kind of cheap, individually-launchable technology that could with a bit of tweaking allow heritage protection advocates to watch over remote sites where looters dig with impunity because antiquities police have inadequate intelligence about what is happening where, or where, as in Syria today, parties to armed conflict are themselves doing the looting to fund their fights and the international community has no way to assign blame because the visual proof is lacking. (Had such technology been available and deployed in Iraq, where for several years the only way to find out what was happening on the archaeological sites was to risk being kidnapped as Micah Garen and Susanne Osthoff both were, those of us who were hearing anecdotal reports of massive looting might have been able to confront US policymakers with embarrassing visual evidence and forced the US military to address the problem instead of sweeping it under the rug.)

The supporters of heritage protection -- UNESCO, ICOM, ICOMOS, ICCROM, archaeological organizations such as the AIA, SAA, and others, foundations, deep-pocketed museums like James Cuno's Getty and the Metropolitan, and wealthy collectors with consciences, the Smithsonian, etc. -- should be focusing now on this very doable technological advancement. Why not go to Google and ask them to sponsor a contest with a prize for the best invention in the field of remote site monitoring?

1 comment:

Timothy P. Whalen, Director, Getty Conservation Institute said...

You call on the Getty to step in, but neglect to mention the important work the Getty and its partners are doing in the Middle East to help countries manage and monitor their cultural heritage.

The Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, or MEGA, is a bilingual Arabic-English, Web-based national geographic information system created by the Getty Conservation Institute with its partner the World Monuments Fund to assist heritage officials in inventorying, monitoring, and managing the Middle East’s vast number of archaeological sites. We helped the Jordanian Department of Antiquities (DoA) customize it for Jordan, where it was called MEGA-J. The DoA deployed MEGA–Jordan nationwide in April 2011. (

The GCI and WMF also have adapted and made MEGA available for use by the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Its implementation in Iraq has been delayed due to administrative changes in the country.

The MEGA system, which incorporates internationally accepted documentation standards, can be customized and is designed for adaptation and use by other countries. It uses open source software that does not impose licensing fees on financially strapped antiquities authorities.

Despite ongoing conflict in the region, we continue to work on projects in the area to aid heritage professionals in a variety of other ways as well.

As recently as July, a group of Syrian heritage professionals participated in training in Rome as part of MOSAIKON, a partnership of the GCI, the Getty Foundation, ICCROM, and the International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics to conserve Roman mosaic pavements and manage archaeological sites in the Mediterranean region through strategic targeting of priorities and deployment of resources.

The first phase of MOSAIKON began in 2008. The partners will shortly be undertaking an evaluation to ensure that the strategy is meeting its objectives. The results of this evaluation will inform subsequent phases of work.