Egypt and Libya can look to the past to help build a more stable future.
The streets of Cairo burned again this week and Tahrir Square swelled once more with protestors — proof, if any were needed, that the Arab Spring will take time to reach full bloom. Uncertainty is a feature of revolutions, as those who have just sealed their own victory in Libya will be well aware. And against such a background, the interests of archaeologists in both countries are, naturally, low on the list of priorities.
Yet the rich archaeological heritage of Egypt and Libya could contribute to their rebuilding. Cultural remains there are so extensive that both nations are effectively open-air museums. Egypt's sites offer a window onto an ancient civilization that was stable for some 3,000 years. Libya's multicultural archaeology is unique, with Punic and Roman sites to the west, Greek and Egyptian to the east, and Berber to the south. And its boundless desert is home to one of the world's largest and earliest collections of prehistoric rock art, as well as to clues to early Saharan civilizations and human movement between Africa and Europe (see Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/news.2011.132; 2011).
Revitalizing archaeology will take time, but it is not too soon to start planning.
For foreign and local archaeologists unable to return safely to work on such sites, the present instability is a source of extreme frustration. Yet they seem reticent to start pressing for archaeology and cultural heritage to be given attention. The revolutions in both countries mark a chance for a radical change of past structures and practices. Revitalizing archaeology in Egypt and Libya will not happen immediately, but it is not too soon to start planning. When the security situation allows foreign researchers to return to Egypt and Libya, funding agencies must be ready to boost collaborations between them and their colleagues in the host nations.
In Egypt, as the News Feature on page 464 shows, the picture for researchers was volatile even before the recent upsurge in violence. The challenge now is to get moving again what was a reasonably well functioning national archaeological service. The tourists will not be back in numbers for years to come, depriving Egypt's archaeology of precious funds. But given the nation's solid archaeology base, there are few reasons to be pessimistic about its long-term prospects.
By contrast, Libya's infrastructure is nowhere near commensurate with the size and diversity of its cultural heritage (see Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature.2011.9396; 2011). Libyan researchers hope that the revolution will bring about a sea change after Gaddafi's 42-year regime, which viewed archaeology as a vestige of colonialism.
To garner public and political support, education on the significance of Libya's heritage is needed at all levels, from schools, to stakeholders living and working near sites, to politicians and business people. Plans must be drafted to reform and develop the country's archaeology, and to train abroad a corps of young archaeologists in modern techniques.
Until then, foreign researchers' input will be essential. They can also play a key part in helping to counter the immediate threat to Libya's heritage posed by the likely reconstruction boom in housing, infrastructure and the oil industry. Libya urgently needs to be surveyed to map all of its heritage sites accurately, catalogue their contents in databases, and then protect the densest concentrations with national parks. Its archaeological services have none of this — when NATO asked for GPS coordinates for the most important sites, to avoid them in airstrikes, no list existed and researchers worldwide scrambled to assemble a rough guide.
Libya's revolution marks a diplomatic success for NATO, and for France, the United Kingdom and the United States in particular. If researchers put forward sensible proposals for cultural management, they may get more political support from those international politicians who helped topple Gaddafi than they think. Oil firms operating in Libya should also fund projects and help to preserve sites, as some already are by sharing their maps.
The new leaders in Libya and Egypt inherit nations in flux and need to establish shared goals with their people. A sense of pride in developing and protecting cultural heritage may be one small step towards that.
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The heritage trail. Nature 479, 445–446 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/479445b