A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
After 23 years, an American team resumes work in Libya.
To capture the excitement of working once again at a world-class archaeological site after a 23-year-absence, talk to Susan Kane, whose exuberance over returning to the Greco-Roman city of Cyrene in northeastern Libya is infectious. "It's a dream come true," says Kane, who as a Bryn Mawr graduate student in the late 1970s spent summers excavating the site's enormous Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone. She also recalls "how utterly devastated" she was when, in 1981, hostilities broke out between Libya and the United States and she and her University of Pennsylvania colleagues working at Cyrene were barred by the State Department from further travel there. "At the time, we had no way of knowing if we'd ever be allowed back," she says, "so all we could do was hope that the politics would some day improve."
But the waiting was frustrating. Contact with the Libyan Department of Antiquities was sporadic and the diplomatic impasse only worsened, especially after the Lockerbie disaster. Kane had just about given up hope of ever returning when, in January 2004, the news came that Libya and the United States had agreed on tentative steps toward full resumption of diplomatic relations. Kane, now a professor of art at Oberlin College, couldn't get to Libya fast enough, and in June 2004 she signed a contract with the Libyans to become director of a new American mission to Cyrene. She is now planning a new project, along with a dozen experts in landscape archaeology and data management.
"Our Libyan colleagues welcomed us back with open arms," she says, recalling her visit to Cyrene a year ago to plan the resumption of work. She also met many old friends. Abdul Kader el Muzeine, who had worked with the earlier mission, was now one of the country's five regional controllers of antiquities. Abdul Kader Shumani Moussa, who had used his father's donkey to bring fresh water to the site, had become a fighter pilot and told of skirmishing with American jets over the Gulf of Sidra in the early 1980s. His flying career ended when his plane crashed into the Sea of Malta, breaking his back. He is now security chief for nearby Labraq airport. She also ran into Saleh Alhasi, who at the age of 10 had been paid to excavate with the earlier team--his first word in English was "stratum." Now an archaeologist teaching at Gar Yunis University in Benghazi, he and his students will be working with the new American mission. "Saleh's students are eager to learn," says Kane. "They grew up without any contact with Americans, and they are curious and enthusiastic about us."
Kane admits there is much work to be done: "The site is pretty overgrown after all these years, and there are major issues facing the Department of Antiquities, whose infrastructure has deteriorated over the long period of sanctions. But I can't help but think all those years studying the cult of Demeter and Persephone were somehow prophetic. Like Demeter waiting for the return of her daughter, we too have been waiting. Hopefully this reunion with our colleagues will begin a new period of growth and productivity at one of the most beautiful ancient cities in the eastern Mediterranean.
Peter A. Young is editor-in-chief of ARCHAEOLOGY.