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Archeology in the War Zone


Karkemish_1When Professor Nicolò Marchetti of Bologna University found out that his team had won a bid to excavate in the ancient city of Karkemish beating a Japanese group that had offered to pay $1 million, the news came as mixed blessings – we assume.  In 2011, for the first time since the Turkish War of Independence, a joint team of Italian and Turkish archaeologists returned to Karkemish, an ancient city on the Syria-Turkey border, building on the work of British Museum teams that included T.E. Lawrence, who later became famous as “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Marchetti, a sort of new version of Indiana Jones as described by the New York Times is surely the only archeologist in the world as we know- digging for national heritage under the watchful eye of al-Qaeda machine guns where the everyday events include seeing pick-up trucks with the black al-Qaeda flag packed with armed militias, passing just a few feet away from the site. The team is unearthing the mythical Hittite capital of Karkemish, which has been named in the Bible. On the banks of the Euphrates River, the excavation site spans the border between Turkey and war-torn Syria. The site was first discovered and briefly explored in the early 20th century. Karkemish now lies within a mine-infested military zone, 65% of it in Turkey and 35% in Syria.

What drives Marchetti to work in such conditions?  Marchetti is proudest of a stele, or commemorative slab, carved with the face of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, the conqueror of Karkemish. He destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple of Salomon in 587 BC, and built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were the seventh wonder of the ancient world. Marchetti who reportedly speaks the native language and is highly respected by the local people, hopes to conserve the area and most likely help the Turkish government to apply for the UNESCO National Heritage designation. He hopes for the creation of a national park that covers the archaeological site and the natural beauty of the nearby river.

Last year, an Associated Press (AP) wire story about Karkemish shone new light on the site, from its ancient history as a strategic city along the Euphrates held by the Mitanni, Hittite and Neo-Assyrian Empires, to the artifacts and remains of palaces and temples uncovered by the British archaeologists in the early 20th century, to Marchetti’s team’s plans to open Karkemish to the public in 2014.


Earliest Buddhist Shrine Uncovered




In a paper published by the Antiquity Journal (on November 25th, 2013) archaeologists reported uncovering the “earliest ever Buddhist shrine” while digging at Buddha’s birthplace. The archeologists led by a team from Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre and Durham University unearthed a 6th Century BC timber structure buried within the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini in Nepal. The shrine appears to have housed a tree. Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi gave birth to the Buddha while grasping the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden.

Every year thousands of Buddhists make a holy pilgrimage to Lumbini – long identified as the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha. Yet despite many books and texts chronicling his life and teachings, it is still uncertain when Buddha lived. Several estimates for his birth dates his life back to 623 BC, but many scholars believed before 390 BC to be a more realistic time frame. Until now, the earliest evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the 3rd Century BC, in the era of the emperor Asoka.

Archeologists uncovered a wooden structure with a central void which had no roof. Brick temples built later above the timber were also arranged around this central space. To date the buildings, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of carbon-dating and optically stimulated luminescence techniques.

“Recent UNESCO-sponsored work at the major Buddhist centre of Lumbini in Nepal has sought to overcome these limitations, providing direct archaeological evidence of the nature of an early Buddhist shrine and a secure chronology. The excavations revealed a sequence of early structures preceding the major rebuilding by Asoka during the third century BC. The sequence of durable brick architecture supplanting non-durable timber was foreseen by British prehistorian Stuart Piggott when he was stationed in India over 70 years ago. Lumbini provides a rare and valuable insight into the structure and character of the earliest Buddhist shrines.” – The team stated in their report.

The discovery which was supported by the National Geographic Society could aid conservation efforts at the site which has been neglected despite its UNESCO World Heritage status and the recent efforts that have brought more attention to Lumbini.

Cultural Heritage Helping to Improve Lives


tt-mapFor many, seeing and visiting world cultural heritage might only be glimpses of the past; lives and cultures that once were. However, in many countries in the world, national cultural heritage help to ensure better lives and future for the citizens of the country. One example of this situation and the opportunity is in East Timor or the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

About 37% of Timor-Leste’s population lives below the international poverty line which means living on less than U.S. $1.25 per day and about 50% of the population is illiterate. However, Timor-Leste’s rich cultural heritage and beautiful landscapes have the potential for tourism which could help to improve the lives of many citizens.  Tourism development is one way of helping preserve the national heritage treasures while also diversifying the economy, and bringing employment and rural development to some of the poorest parts of the country.

The World Bank has already identified over ninety cultural heritage sites with tourism potential and at the same time has recognized that a major challenge is that about 70 percent of the country’s population of one million people live in rural areas, often with limited access to transportation and a lack of communication infrastructure. A poor road network and limited attention to the country’s cultural heritage is a major constraint. However, the World Bank is supporting the rehabilitation of roads and working with local communities to identify tourism potential of important heritage sites. The World Bank is working with the Ministry of Tourism and local communities to identify cultural heritage sites along the Dili, Aileu and Ainaro road. The Ninety sites that have been identified along with their local significance, potential management opportunities and constraints to develop sustainable tourism have been studied. Under the Road Climate Resilient Project, the Bank aims at improving the 110km road between Dili and Ainaro, with work expected to start by early 2014. This road serves as a vital link between the north and the south of the country, in some of the poorest and most remote parts as reported by the World Bank.


Timor-Leste has had a turbulent history and has a market economy that used to depend upon exports of a few commodities such as coffee, marble, oil and sandalwood. However, the economy grew by about 10% in 2011, and at a similar rate in 2012 mostly due to oil industry.

The history of Timor-Leste:

The Portuguese began to trade with the island of Timor in the early 16th century and colonized it in mid-century. Skirmishing with the Dutch in the region eventually resulted in an 1859 treaty in which Portugal ceded the western portion of the island. Imperial Japan occupied Portuguese Timor from 1942 to 1945, but Portugal resumed colonial authority after the Japanese defeat in World War II. East Timor declared itself independent from Portugal on 28 November 1975 and was invaded and occupied by Indonesian forces nine days later. It was incorporated into Indonesia in July 1976 as the province of Timor Timur (East Timor). An unsuccessful campaign of pacification followed over the next two decades, during which an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 individuals lost their lives. On 30 August 1999, in an UN-supervised popular referendum, an overwhelming majority of the people of Timor-Leste voted for independence from Indonesia. However, in the next three weeks, anti-independence Timorese militias – organized and supported by the Indonesian military – commenced a large-scale, scorched-earth campaign of retribution. The militias killed approximately 1,400 Timorese and forcibly pushed 300,000 people into western Timor as refugees. Most of the country’s infrastructure, including homes, irrigation systems, water supply systems, and schools, and nearly 100% of the country’s electrical grid were destroyed. On 20 September 1999, Australian-led peacekeeping troops deployed to the country and brought the violence to an end. On 20 May 2002, Timor-Leste was internationally recognized as an independent state. In 2006, internal tensions threatened the new nation’s security when a military strike led to violence and a breakdown of law and order. At Dili’s request, an Australian-led International Stabilization Force (ISF) deployed to Timor-Leste, and the UN Security Council established the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), which included an authorized police presence of over 1,600 personnel. The ISF and UNMIT restored stability, allowing for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007 in a largely peaceful atmosphere. In February 2008, a rebel group staged an unsuccessful attack against the president and prime minister. The ringleader was killed in the attack, and most of the rebels surrendered in April 2008. Since the attack, the government has enjoyed one of its longest periods of post-independence stability, including successful 2012 elections for both the parliament and president. In late 2012, the UN Security Council voted to end its peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste and the peace keeping forces departed the country by the end of the year.

Stolen Treasures Come Home




Earlier this month (November 2013), in an exhibition named Capolavori dell’archeologia: Recuperi, ritrovamenti, confronti or Masterpieces of archaeology: Recovery, findings, comparisons Italy’s lost artifacts were finally home. The exhibition which was held at Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo, an imposing fortress-turned-state museum, visitors got the chance to see beautiful antiquities and artifacts that had been returned to Italy. The pieces which were either illegally exported, looted or stolen were sold in the international markets and most probably transported around the world to private collectors. This is another evidence that illegal smuggling of national heritage and archeological artifacts is not unique to war or conflict-torn regions and countries of the world as we have reported here at WCHV. In fact, the

Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s police force, has reported recovering 874,163 archaeological works and 2,416 paintings in the past two years as reported by BBC.

At the exhibition, one display showed that when an item is looted, the problem isn’t just that it risks disappearing into the hands of a private collector somewhere around the globe. One of the major problems is that many times the smuggled item is deliberately broken into smaller pieces to make it easier to hide and move and as a result the artifact is actually destroyed.

The items in the exhibit included ancient sarcophagi, sculptures, vases, and frescoes.

One of the treasures was the head and extremities of a Morgantina acrolith. Acroliths were statues generally made with wooden trunks and marble heads; dating from 530 to 520BC. That particular piece is one of the oldest in the Western world and believed to have been donated by a private collector to the University of Virginia’s Art Museum, which returned them to Italy in 2008. Another set of great pieces in the exhibit included large vibrant pieces of fresco from a villa in Pompeii which were returned to Italy in 2009 from the J Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California.

In 1970 UNESCO Convention on the illicit movement of cultural property mandated that a buyer of stolen antiquities must return the items to the original country, even if purchased in good faith. The US signed the mandate in 1983.


Wari Tomb: Latest Pre-Incan Discovery in Peru


Wari_ruinsLate last month, (October 2013) during the most recent excavations in an archaeological site in the center of Lima, Peru’s busy and lively capital city, archeologists found the newest pre-Incan Discovery. They found an undisturbed Wari tomb containing two corpses wrapped in ceremonial fabric, which is estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. The Pucllana archaeological site in Lima contained the bodies of an adult and an infant, along with nearly 10 intact artifacts.
The archeologists believe that the adult was likely a master weaver, and the infant, was probably killed and buried in the tomb as an offering in the adult’s honor.
The Wari civilization was active in an area that now contains Lima from approximately 600 to 1000 AD, some 500 years before the Inca Empire emerged. Seventy Wari tombs have been unearthed at the Pucllana site, which is nestled in a residential neighborhood in central Lima

Lost Prehistoric Code Found in Mesopotamia


What do the clay balls from Mesopotamia reveal?  The researchers believe that they might have found an answer. They have discovered clues to a lost code that was used for record-keeping about 200 years before writing was invented.  In fact, the researchers believe that the clay balls may represent the world’s very first data storage system according to Professor Christopher Woods of the University of Chicago.  At a lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum and an interview with LiveScience, Woods further explained the new findings about the clay balls

1-prehistoric-codeThe researchers used high-resolution CT scans and 3D modeling to look inside more than 20 clay balls or “envelopes” – as researchers call them – that were excavated at the site of Choga Mish, in western Iran, in the late 1960s. They were created about 5,500 years ago at a time when early cities were flourishing in Mesopotamia. 

The balls were sealed and contain tokens in a variety of geometric shapes and varying sizes from golf ball-size to baseball-size. Researchers believe that the tokens which come in 14 different shapes, including spheres, pyramids, ovoids, lenses and cones, could have represented whole words, and that these shapes would have conveyed numbers connected to a variety of metrological systems used in counting different types of commodities. One ovoid, for instance, might mean a certain unit, say 10, which was used while counting a certain type of commodity.

It is important to point out that researchers have long believed that these clay balls were used to record economic transactions and that the tokens represent numbers and metrical units. This interpretation is also based on an analysis of a 3,300-year-old clay ball found at a site in Mesopotamia named Nuzi that had 49 pebbles and a cuneiform text containing a contract commanding a shepherd to care for 49 sheep and goats.

Professor Woods also commented that through the different token shapes, people in prehistoric times could have actually communicated numbers and units in a way similar to how the first scribes did 200 years later when writing was invented.

Climate Change and Preservation of Natural Heritage


climateAs the world has been watching the devastation in terms of human loss and destruction of cities, coast lines and nature in the Philippines over the last few days, once again we at WCHV are reminded of the importance of addressing climate change. Climate Change results in more extreme and unpredictable weather across the world.  The World Wildlife Fund (http://www.wwf.org.za/what_we_do/climate_change/) states that “Climate change is the biggest threat to nature and humanity in the 21st century. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the threat of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising more rapidly than predicted and the world is warming more quickly in response. Global warming will have catastrophic effects such as accelerating sea level rise, droughts, floods, storms and heat waves. These will impact everyone, including some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, disrupting food production, and threatening vitally important species, habitats and ecosystems.”   We could not have said it better.  We at WCHV have continued to report on the impact of wars and conflicts on the destruction and loss of the World National and Natural Heritage around the world as well as the impact of natural disasters, climate change and drastic environmental changes on such loss.  We will continue to do this every week, report on the meetings and will bring you the announcements on the related conferences.
2013 climate change conference in Warsaw
This month the international community focusing on climate change meets in Warsaw, Poland and it is believed that these UN climate talks could lay foundation for a more unified global pact even though, no major decisions are expected at the conference. The meeting and the progress is a key marker for what the world can reach in form of a deal in 2015.  Especially since the 2009 summit in Copenhagen< ended in discord and major disagreements.For more information visit:  http://unfccc.int/meetings/warsaw_nov_2013/meeting/7649.php

Missing National Heritage Artifact Spotted at a Wedding Party


missing2It has been reported to WCHV that several items believed to be over hundreds of years old and considered to be valuable Persian national heritage artifacts were seen at a wedding party in Yazd Province, in Iran and was being used as a chair.  WCHV has been told that these items and more similar artifacts were discovered about four years ago in the Yazd  Province, and were cataloged, listed on the national heritage list of the country and were then supposed to be transferred a museum later.  However, last year, the associate director of the Iranian National Heritage Sites organization reported that those items had been destroyed by unknown individuals, until recently when others have reported seeing some of the same items at a wedding party and another at a conference.

missing1The items found four years ago reported to have included over fifty two artifacts, some made of rocks, with native paintings depicting scenes of hunting of mountain goats and tigers.

Exhibition on Mesopotamia at the Royal Ontario Museum


Ontario museumA rare exhibition is currently on display now through January 5, 2014 at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World showcases hundreds of artifacts illustrating the achievements of these ancient empires. Highlights include a rare surviving Assyrian sculpture depicting King Ashurnasirpal II, and a terracotta relief of a striding lion that once adorned the palace of Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar II, who famously conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews to Babylon.

Mesopotamia, included the great ancient empires of Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. Encompassing present-day Iraq, northeast Syria, western Iran and southeast Turkey. The objects in the exhibition come from the British Museum’s rich collection as well as from the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Also included are presentations of archaeological excavations conducted in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The visitor will also experience audio-visual installments and a 3D fly-through of Babylon, highlighting the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

It has widely been reported in the media that following the American invasion in Iraq, looters and smugglers stole major pieces and artifacts from the Iraq National Museum, creating a major loss to the county’s wealth of national heritage. Many architectural remains have also been greatly damaged from war and devastation and artifacts of tremendous national value have been destroyed.

For more information visit Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

CyArk: 3D Laser Technology Helping to Preserve World Heritage


CyArkIt is no longer science fiction to use the newest information technology and bio-technology techniques (as we have reported here on WCHV in the past) to help and preserve the World Heritage Sites. The reality is that today archeologists, scientists, and innovators from many different disciplines work together with the same goals: saving and preserving the world heritage sites for the future generations.

Now, a non-profit organization in the United States called CyArk – which stands for Cyber Archive – has an ambitious plan to scan hundreds of the planet’s world heritage sites with a 3D laser. CyArk wants to digitally preserve 500 world heritage sites within the next five years.  Late last month during a special conference in London (October 20-22, 2013), the organization officially announced its plans.

If you think this is an almost impossible task, CyArk begs to differ as it has already scanned 100 sites around the world, including Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Tikal in Guatemala and Pompeii in Italy.  Sites are scanned using the latest laser technology, which can plot millions of points of data. CyArk collects all the information and then archives it online, where it is free for the public to access. Then any one from around the world can go online and see the information on monuments through photos, videos, animations, and virtual tours.  CyArk’s 3D scanners have a range of hundreds of feet and since everything is digitally captured and stored, they can scan the site from all different angles in a fraction of time that it takes to do the same thing using traditional methods.

CyArk will keep a digital map of all locations scanned before (as the organization announced) these sites are ravaged by “nature” including flooding, acid rain, earthquakes, or “man” including conflicts and acts of terrorism. CyArk believes in leaving a digital legacy for future generations after some buildings are long gone, but it is also about empowering local communities connected to these sites as reported by Metro, a UK newspaper.

During a recent TED Conference, Ben Kacyra, the inventor of the 3D laser Technology which is used by CyArk and the founder of the organization gave a talk about his plans and how he and his wife came to start the organization.  The idea for CyArk was born out of the destruction in 2001 by the Taliban of the two Bamiyan Buddhas. The Buddha statutes in Afghanistan were carved into a sandstone cliff face in the 6th century, and one of the Buddhas was actually 55m tall.  Ben Kacyra says that there was no detailed documentation of the Buddhas and he didn’t want other monuments to suffer a similar fate.  Kacyra also talks about the great loss of cultural information which occurred in the 2003 earthquake in the city of Bam in Iran. In fact, Kacyras and CyArk greatly feel concerned about the sites in areas of turmoil, conflict and war.

During the TED talk, Kacyra also talked about how CyArk’s data has already proved very crucial.  When a part of the Kasubi Tombs in Uganda – a Unesco World Heritage Site that we have reported on here at WCHV – was destroyed in a suspected arson attack in 2010, the UNESCO and Ugandan authorities approached CyArk and requested the information and data the organization had already gathered. The plan is to restore the buildings using this data.

CyArk states that the selection of the remainder of the 500 monuments will be based on a number of factors, including the short-term risk of destruction and the impact its preservation will have on the surrounding community. The date and all the information that CyArk gathers is stored in a safe place. A gold copy of archive data is kept in a bunker 220 ft (67m) below the ground in Pennsylvania by records storage company Iron Mountain.