Over the past few years, Libya has been making archaeology headlines not for the exciting new discoveries there, but for the ruthless cultural destruction. Here are just a handful of examples: In 2011, a gang busted into a concrete underground vault in Benghazi and stole 7,700 ancient coins, a heist described by one expert as among “the greatest thefts in archaeological history.” In 2012, Islamist militants razed countless Sufi shrines and graves throughout the country. And last year, gunmen in Tripoli stripped the 18th-century Karamanli Mosque of its intricate ceramic tiles and marble decorations, while Sabha castle was blasted by rockets.
That’s a lot for any country to endure, much less one hardly bigger than Alaska. Yet it can be easy for outsiders to dismiss these terrible events as another nation’s problem — it’s their history and their culture, one might say. In a recent article for the science journal Nature, archaeologist Savino di Lernia shoots down that line of thinking. He explains that it isn’t just a few historical monuments at risk, but rather an entire field of work that investigates the very origins of the history of humanity.
“Libya is a hotspot for research into the human past,” he writes, going on to cite the many reasons why the scorching hot Sahara Desert (of which Libya makes up a big part) matters — from 9,000-year-old wall paintings to ancient evidence of milking to the dispersal of humans across Africa thousands of years ago. All in all, an unbelievably important chunk of history rests amid its sandy dunes.
Libya’s conflict has brought archaeological exploration in the region to a halt. Di Lernia was himself forced to evacuate in 2011; before then, he’d taken trips to the country every year since 1990. Concerns are now deepening about the safety of countless invaluable sites; it no longer seems a matter of whether they will be destroyed, but when, as anything not in line with the goals of militant revolutionaries seems to become a target.
The crisis prompted Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, to call for better protection of Libyan cultural heritage last October. “These attacks cannot be seen as isolated or collateral damages,” she said. “They take place in a global context of repeated and deliberate attacks against cultural heritage, in Libya and elsewhere, threatening social cohesion and fueling violence and division within society.” Despite her appeal to end the violence, the future looks pretty stark. Di Lernia writes that archaeological excavations will be “impossible for years, if not generations.” So, what can be done?
According to di Lernia, archaeologists simply have to keep going. Just because war has made it impossible to do fieldwork doesn’t mean research can’t continue. It should instead be carried out internationally in museums, laboratories, and online, he says. Museum collections featuring Libyan artifacts can be digitized for global audiences. Satellite imagery can be scanned for remote analysis. An internet archive of rock-art sites could be built, “[helping] Libyan scientists overcome their isolation and regain a sense of identity.” He underscores the need to support Libyan archaeologists and scientists, demanding funding and visas from foreign donors and governments so they can work temporarily overseas.
While it might seem irrelevant to invest in cultural heritage at a time when people are dying from a bloody conflict, di Lernia says it’s not. “As UNESCO recognizes, culture has a powerful role in ‘building social cohesion and contributing to reconciliation and peace,’” he writes. “We must continue to nurture skills, trust and knowledge about our shared past.” It’s not just Libya’s cultural identity, but the world’s too, that depends on it.