A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Spectacular beauty, rich archaeological heritage, and newly opened doors into both past and future
I recently returned from hosting an Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) tour to Libya, and am still dazzled by the memories of what I saw there. Libya's archaeological heritage ranges from prehistoric rock art through well-preserved Greek, Punic, and Roman architecture; Early Christian/Byzantine churches and mosaics; and Islamic mosques and dwellings. There are five UNESCO World Heritage sites in Libya, and we visited four of them--Cyrene, Sabratha, Lepcis Magna, and Ghadames. Cyrene features spectacular Greek temples of Zeus and Apollo and a new museum crammed with Greek and Roman sculpture from the site. Sabratha and Lepcis are best known for their Roman remains, including rebuilt theaters at each site complete with elaborate colonnaded stage facades. The exotic medieval caravan town of Ghadames, on the edge of the Sahara's great sand sea, is a warren of connected whitewashed mud-brick houses in an oasis surrounded by desert dunes. With these and many other lesser known but equally fascinating sites, Libya has much to offer the traveler interested in archaeology.
After 23 years of sanctions, the Libyan archaeological community is eager to resume contact with their American colleagues. There is a long history of American-Libyan archaeology, especially at Cyrene. In 1910, the AIA began work at Cyrene, but the project was short-lived. A half century later, Clark Hopkins, John Pedley, and Donald White excavated three seasons (1965-1967) at Apollonia, Cyrene's port, for the University of Michigan. In 1969, White turned to Cyrene itself, excavating its Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone for 11 years on behalf of first the University of Michigan and then the University of Pennsylvania. Now, White and Oberlin College's Susan Kane, who is also the AIA's vice-president for publications, are returning to the site with the Cyrenaica Archaeological Project.
However, the practice of archaeology and conservation of sites in Libya has a long way to go to reach international standards. During the lost years of the sanctions, a generation of young scholars, field archaeologists, and conservators had limited opportunities to travel or study abroad. Teaching of foreign languages in Libyan schools and universities languished, and new foreign books and scholarly journals did not reach its libraries, preventing scholars from staying abreast of current research. Training in modern excavation, conservation, and storage methodologies and technologies is lacking. Protection against looting and vandalism of sites and monuments, to say nothing of encroaching development, is woefully inadequate. Presentation and interpretation of sites for tourists needs to be developed, and local guides need training.
As American and European archaeologists excavate in Libya, they are working with their Libyan colleagues to address many of the problems outlined above. Susan Kane's team at Cyrene, for example, is collaborating with the regional Department of Antiquities office on a comprehensive project that includes upgrading the department's site-management systems and research library, and computerization of their paper and photographic records. The AIA, which sponsored the first excavation at Cyrene in 1910, is investigating how it might be able to assist in protecting the site and enhancing the experience of visitors.
Helping Libya develop state-of-the-art archaeology and responsible tourism is both a challenge and an opportunity. We at the AIA are excited about the possibilities for the future.
Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.