Taking a closer look at conflict-damaged sites has had unexpected results for archaeology.
The damage to ancient sites caused by conflict, looting and terrorism has been a recurring headline this year and there are many more sites still under threat.
Damaged sites are often disregarded by archaeological professionals who consider their potential to provide any new data of worth minimal.
But researchers from the University of Leicester and the American University of Beirut have found something surprising. Their work in Lebanon has shown that not only is it still possible to retrieve valuable information, shifting the focus of study away from the damaged areas (often at the centre of the sites) to the outskirts of the settlement can produce new and original interpretations.
The temple site of Hosn Niha
High in the Lebanese mountains, the Greco-Roman site of Hosn Niha has suffered from centuries of destruction, most recently sustaining substantial damage from the 1975-1990 civil wars.
The site had long been written off. But, say the researchers, revisiting the site has actually introduced a very different view. By implementing surveying and recording strategies specially tailored to damaged sites, they’ve managed to recover valuable evidence and in fact gain a better understanding of the settlement’s history and development.
Hidden depths revealed
Using enhanced GPS surveying techniques, they carefully mapped structures and assessed the damage. Surveys revealed that although the core of the settlement below the main temple sanctuary had been almost entirely destroyed, significant structures on the outskirts of the settlement survived.
They recorded the remains of tombs in a cemetery to the East, and mapped new structures right across the site, which they later interpreted as farm dwellings.
Following up with intensive field walking provided a general idea of the extent of the occupation area, and more information about the settlement’s development and decline.
Shifting the focus
The investigation at Hosn Niha shows that, instead of writing-off these conflict affected sites, developing tailored survey techniques and shifting the focus to more ‘low-key’ areas, archaeologists can still recover data. It can even provide a new opportunity for reinterpretation.
Of course, this practice is in no way an alternative to prevention; the continued damage and destruction of heritage sites is still an issue for leading heritage organisations and governments worldwide.
But in the current absence in many situations of long-term solutions for preventative protection, the project really highlights these sites’ potential as valuable resources instead of “inevitable casualties of war”.
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