A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Drought gripped the Aegean island of Thera in the middle of the seventh century B.C. Desperate, the islanders sent an embassy to Delphi, to ask the oracle of Apollo for advice. There, the priestess told them to found a colony in Libya. Whether the story is legend or fact--it is recorded variously by poets, historians, and on ancient inscriptions--a Greek colony was established at Cyrene around 630 B.C. on an exceptionally fertile, well-watered plateau eight miles from the coast. Melding with the local population, the colonists flourished and, for a thousand years, their city was a leading center of commerce and culture in the eastern Mediterranean.
Explorations at Cyrene, conducted by American, Italian, British, and Libyan archaeologists, have taken place for nearly a century. As early as 1884, the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) began considering an expedition to Cyrene. In 1910, Richard Norton, son of AIA founder Charles Eliot Norton, led a team to the site, but the excavation was cut short after his assistant, Herbert Fletcher De Cou, was murdered (his killers were never identified). It was a half century before Americans returned. In 1969, a mission directed by Donald White and sponsored first by the University of Michigan and then by the University of Pennsylvania, began excavations at what proved to be one of the largest sanctuaries of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone ever found. Fieldwork there was suspended in 1981 because of the deepening hostilities between the United States and Libya. (Publication of the results continued, however, with 11 monographs on the site and finds being published to date.)
Among those working for White was a graduate student named Susan Kane. Today, White, now retired from the University of Pennsylvania, and Kane, a professor of art at Oberlin College, are leading the American return to Cyrene. "In January 2004, the very week that Donald retired," recalls Kane, "the official announcement that the United States was resuming relations with Libya changed everything. We immediately wrote to Libya's Department of Antiquities and were issued visas to come that July. The visit was extraordinary. Our Libyan colleagues in the Department of Antiquities welcomed us with open arms...."
Kane returned in January 2005, to begin preparations for the summer season. Her team arrived at Shahat, the modern city at Cyrene, at the same time the Libyan antiquities staff received their first computer. "Seven eager young staff members clustered around my husband, Sam Carrier, who helped to set it up and to offer some basic training in Word and Excel," says Kane. Although an impromptu Excel course in Arabic was challenging, Carrier, on the team for his information-technology skills, got the young men started on their first project: transcribing old hard-copy site reports into a new computerized database. He also taught them their first English word: "Save."
Returning after years of official disengagement between the American and Libyan governments, there are challenges, says Kane, "and in many ways we are like Rip Van Winkle, awakening after a 23-year sleep to find many things have changed."
The new American mission, known as the Cyrenaica Archaeological Project (CAP), has its eye on the Demeter and Persephone sanctuary, but there are more pressing needs. The new chairman of the Libyan Department of Antiquities, Giuma Anag, and the regional controller of antiquities in Shahat, Abdul Kader el Muzeine, have requested CAP's assistance training department staff in the use of new technologies. The American mission will instruct young Libyan archaeologists in modern landscape-survey and digital-visualization methods, as well as documentation techniques, providing an opportunity to upgrade the department's site-management systems. Once trained, the Libyans will--with help from CAP--digitize and integrate the photographic and site archives, upgrade the library's catalog system, and create and implement a modern cultural-heritage management system. The multiyear project, says Kane, will showcase the ability of Americans and Libyans to work together, joining American technology and expertise with the labor and dedication of young Libyans.
In addition to assisting the Department of Antiquities, CAP will be doing its own work. One project is to expand previous work that studied the provenance of white marbles used at Cyrene to make a wider study of white marbles in the Cyrenaica as a whole. And then there's the Demeter and Persephone sanctuary, with a need to bring past work there up to date and to look to the future.
The Demeter and Persephone sanctuary was laid out about a generation after the founding of Cyrene and continued in use throughout the Roman period. CAP plans to conduct a surface survey of the sanctuary to identify areas for study and possible test trenches in 2006. But its main goal will be to update what is already known from the earlier excavations. "When we left 23 years ago," says Kane, "the site had been beautifully excavated by Donald in the best tradition of the times. But it was all pre-computer, so we need to do a modern topographic survey and put the entire database of the sanctuary into some kind of computerized form, which is a major task. We have to bring the sanctuary material into the modern computer era."
Renewing large-scale excavation at the sanctuary is a temptation. "When we left, the sanctuary was between 45 and 60 percent excavated," says Kane. "The sanctuary's on a hillside, and we know there is a very important set of buildings, at least one major set of buildings, that Donald never got to." For now though, putting shovel to earth is not a priority. "It is more critical now to put the sanctuary area into the context of the surrounding territory through a modern landscape archaeology study," says Kane.
Mark Rose is executive and online editor at ARCHAEOLOGY. The work of the Cyrenaica Archaeological Project is supported by the Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation, the Global Heritage Fund, and the National Geographic Society.