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Cataloging the Cradle of Civilization

By Cynthia Barnes | HUMANITIES, July/August 2006 | Volume 27, Number 4

The first known depiction of a human face in stone . . . A vase documenting the daily tasks that defined activity as people built a future in the Fertile Crescent . . . Towering walls that heralded the end of rootless wanderings and the beginning of urban society . . . They have all come from sites in what we now call Iraq, and they are irreplaceable evidence of our species' cultural evolution.

The locations--Uruk and Ur--that gave birth to these treasures are in peril. The cradle of civilization lies largely unguarded. The winds of war, progress, and time threaten to erase the sites and the knowledge they hold, leaving only traces and tales.

To prevent this loss is the mission of the World Monument Fund's two-year project to catalog the cultural resources of Iraq. The ambitious undertaking is under the direction of Gaetano Palumbo, director of Archaeological Conservation for WMF Europe. In cooperation with the Getty Conservation Institute and in coordination with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Palumbo is developing a program with Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to collect information about the country's cultural resources in order to document and assess the status of archaeological sites and historic urban centers.

"It is only by a fortunate chance that the paper archives at the National Museum, which contain information on approximately ten thousand archaeological sites, were not looted and dispersed during the looting of the museum in April 2003," says Palumbo. The problem is "paper archives are difficult to consult, and, in the case of the site archive at the National Museum, do not record site information with standardized forms, but are rather a collection of reports on the various sites, provided by archaeologists and site inspectors following visits or research."

To create a system that is easier to use, the guardians of the past are working on an electronic archive that relies on the very latest in Geographic Information System (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies. The end result will be a database that links information about a site's importance and condition with mapping details, including topography. Cultural authorities could use the database to predict the impact of developments as Iraq's infrastructure is rebuilt and expanded.

Creating a national inventory will allow triage rescue activities and allow long-term management of sites that aren't immediately imperiled.

"An electronic archive, besides obvious advantages of easy data retrieval and organization, has also the enormous advantage of being easily reproducible and can be stored in copies in many different locations," adds Palumbo.

Systems for cataloging historic sites have been started elsewhere in the Middle East: GIS-based inventories are being established in Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority have also begun programs to control and monitor their cultural heritage. The Iraq archive is based on an existing GIS deployed by Jordan's Department of Antiquities and the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman.

At the end of the project, the system will be administered by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), currently under the direction of Donny George Youkhanna. It eventually will include data on more than twenty thousand archaeological and historic sites and cultural monuments.

The first phase of the project, which focused on site documentation and inventory methodology has been completed. Some training for State Board of Antiquities personnel has also been completed. "We have conducted five courses so far, on various aspects of site documentation and management, and on the use of specialized equipment such as total stations and GPS," says Palumbo.

The expertise will be put to good use in coming years, for the ongoing war and the damage incurred by looting are not the only threats to Iraq's cultural heritage. When political and military instability give way to infrastructure development, resources that escaped plunder could fall to progress. The site of Assur, the capital of ancient Assyria, for instance, had been threatened with the construction of a dam. Assur was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2003, and the project is frozen for the moment.

Palumbo believes the system will be useful in directing future construction. The SBAH "has a representative in the ministries dedicated to infrastructure development and they can suggest alternative solutions if the project is found to impact existing sites," he says. "Unfortunately, not all of Iraq was intensively surveyed, so many areas are presently archaeological terra incognita. This means that new and more intensive surveys are necessary in advance of construction projects. The database also serves to identify the areas where surveys have not been conducted, as it has a function that marks the zones that have received intensive explorations."

Palumbo hopes to build on the GIS success in Jordan, although he allows that the implementation is not yet perfect. He eventually sees the archive--available in both Arabic and English--protecting all of Iraq's sites. "We have completed the database and GIS basi modules, which can run on stand-alone or networked systems in Baghdad," he explains. "The system, however, still needs final debugging and testing before delivery."

Security on the database and inventory will be tight, to prevent looters from obtaining information. "The database will not be accessible by the public. If a decision will be taken to show part of it to the public, coordinates will be withdrawn and maps will not be drawn to detailed scales, to avoid the inappropriate use of the tool," says Palumbo. "For the time being, we predict that the system will only be used by SBAH-authorized employees."

About the Author

Cynthia Barnes is a writer in Columbia, Missouri.

Funding Information

The World Monuments Fund has received $100,000 in NEH funding to develop a database and Geographic Information System to manage information necessary to protecting Iraq's archaeological heritage.