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A new mission in Libya: Professor Susan Kane leads program to preserve endangered sites in Cyrene

Nov. 04, 2011

Amanda Nagy

Professor Susan Kane, an internationally known expert on Greek and Roman sculpture, is leading a project to assist the Libyan Department of Antiquities to document and assess threats to archeological [1]sites in the Cyrenaica region of eastern Libya. 

On October 18, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $180,000 to support a new U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) project, which brings together Oberlin faculty and the Libyan Department of Antiquities in a comprehensive program of mapping, documentation, and risk assessment in one of the most culturally significant ruin complexes in the world. Kane is director of the Cyrenaica Archaeological Project[2], an international mission that works in partnership with Libyan archeologists at the ancient Greco-Roman site of Cyrene and at sites throughout the Cyrenaica region.

A colony founded by the Greeks of Thera in the fourth century BCE, Cyrene was one of the principal cities in the Hellenic world. The city became a Roman province in 74 BCE, and remained a great capital until a major earthquake in CE 365. Unlike the ruins found in well-known ancient cities such as Athens and Rome, Cyrene is relatively untouched and has not been built over by later periods of occupation. The site is designated as a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), meaning it is a unique example of cultural heritage that is important to the world, says Kane, who is chair of archeology studies at Oberlin. “It is one of the best preserved and most beautiful Greco-Roman cities. It’s absolutely spectacular.”

The project seeks to build a partnership with the Libyan Department of Antiquities, a government agency that for decades was underfunded and undersupported, and to help its staff become independent and more knowledgeable in its ability to care for the sites according to modern international standards. “Libya’s Department of Antiquities has endured a long period of neglect, and the archeological sites for which it bears responsibility has suffered the same fate,” says Kane. “Under the Gaddafi regime, ancient Greco-Roman sites were considered not important. The government hated anything non-Arabic out of spite.”

Kane is optimistic that Libya’s transitional government will welcome an international research mission. “The timing of the AFCP grant is perfect,” she says. “We weren’t sure the Gaddafi government would ever support this project. This is a fragile time for Libya. There is a concern about whether or not the government will take cultural heritage under consideration. I think there will be more interest from the interim government in preserving these sites.” 

Including Cyrene, Libya has five sites on UNESCO’s world heritage list. Illicit post-war looting, continued population growth, urban encroachment, and the prospect of tourism as Libya reengages with the developed world are real threats to the cultural heritage sites. Although the country’s rulers have declared Libya liberated, the government has a long road ahead in restoring stability. For that reason, it could be months before Kane and her research partners can enter Libya. She has a researcher in Cairo and contacts in the Libyan Department of Antiquities who are helping with preparations. “We’re doing everything we can right now to get ready.”

Since the United States resumed diplomatic relations with Libya in 2004, Kane has applied for grants and visited about once per year, most recently in January 2011 with her husband, Sam Carrier, an associate professor of psychology, and senior archeology student James Countryman. They left Tripoli on February 3, and two weeks later the revolution began. The purpose of their trip was to establish a working relationship between Libya’s Department of Antiquities and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

While the overarching goal is to protect and further explore the ruins at Cyrene, Oberlin’s mission is to establish a partnership with the Libyan antiquities staff, and to provide the training and tools they need to manage their resources. In fall 2010, three Libyan archeologists spent the semester at Oberlin working with Kane and Carrier to develop the Department of Antiquities’ archival records. What they found was that records are outdated and in some cases incomplete or inadequate, and that their data needed to be translated into Arabic and multiple languages. According to Kane, a review of their records found that only 10 percent of the sites could be located reliably on a map, although precise boundaries have never been established. Libyan researchers also lack information about the condition of the sites, as most haven’t been inspected in years. 

Countryman, a senior majoring in archeological studies and Greek language and literature, says it was an extraordinary privilege to accompany Kane to Libya. “I had traveled to southern Europe a couple of times, but never to anywhere in North Africa or the Middle East, so I really didn't know what to expect,” says Countryman. 

“What I found was a beautiful country with people who were friendly and welcoming, and a rich and multilayered history that I had never been aware of before. It was a very exciting time to be there because we felt like the country was finally beginning to open up and there would be real opportunity for new archeological work and exchange between Libyans and westerners. There was an intense feeling of excitement at the Department of Antiquities in Cyrene that some real conservation work was going to happen at the site and at the museum.”
 
Despite its importance in the Greco-Roman world, Libya doesn’t seem to be on the radar for most students of classical archeology, Countryman says. “In this way, being able to travel to Libya was invaluable for me, because it made me aware of how important this area was in antiquity and how much archaeological work could and should be done there.

“Even though I was a lone undergraduate classics and archeology student amongst highly professional and dedicated archeologists and conservators, I felt that my presence there signaled the start of something. I hope that the regime change in Libya means that the country will start to open up, and more archeologists, scholars, and students will be able to travel to this country and become more aware of the amazing cultural remains that are there.”

Professor Susan Kane, an internationally known expert on Greek and Roman sculpture, is leading a project to assist the Libyan Department of Antiquities to document and assess threats to archeological sites in the Cyrenaica region of eastern Libya.

On October 18, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $180,000 to support a new U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) project, which brings together Oberlin faculty and the Libyan Department of Antiquities in a comprehensive program of mapping, documentation, and risk assessment in one of the most culturally significant ruin complexes in the world. Kane is director of the Cyrenaica Archaeological Project, an international mission that works in partnership with Libyan archeologists at the ancient Greco-Roman site of Cyrene and at sites throughout the Cyrenaica region. 

A colony founded by the Greeks of Thera in the fourth century BCE, Cyrene was one of the principal cities in the Hellenic world. The city became a Roman province in 74 BCE, and remained a great capital until a major earthquake in CE 365. Unlike the ruins found in well-known ancient cities such as Athens and Rome, Cyrene is relatively untouched and has not been built over by later periods of occupation. The site is designated as a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), meaning it is a unique example of cultural heritage that is important to the world, says Kane, who is chair of archeology studies at Oberlin. “It is one of the best preserved and most beautiful Greco-Roman cities. It’s absolutely spectacular.”

The project seeks to build a partnership with the Libyan Department of Antiquities, a government agency that for decades was underfunded and undersupported, and to help its staff become independent and more knowledgeable in its ability to care for the sites according to modern international standards. “Libya’s Department of Antiquities has endured a long period of neglect, and the archeological sites for which it bears responsibility has suffered the same fate,” says Kane. “Under the Gaddafi regime, ancient Greco-Roman sites were considered not important. The government hated anything non-Arabic out of spite.”

Kane is optimistic that Libya’s transitional government will welcome an international research mission. “The timing of the AFCP grant is perfect,” she says. “We weren’t sure the Gaddafi government would ever support this project. This is a fragile time for Libya. There is a concern about whether or not the government will take cultural heritage under consideration. I think there will be more interest from the interim government in preserving these sites.” 

Including Cyrene, Libya has five sites on UNESCO’s world heritage list. Illicit post-war looting, continued population growth, urban encroachment, and the prospect of tourism as Libya reengages with the developed world are real threats to the cultural heritage sites. Although the country’s rulers have declared Libya liberated, the government has a long road ahead in restoring stability. For that reason, it could be months before Kane and her research partners can enter Libya. She has a researcher in Cairo and contacts in the Libyan Department of Antiquities who are helping with preparations. “We’re doing everything we can right now to get ready.”

Since the United States resumed diplomatic relations with Libya in 2004, Kane has applied for grants and visited about once per year, most recently in January 2011 with her husband, Sam Carrier, an associate professor of psychology, and senior archeology student James Countryman. They left Tripoli on February 3, and two weeks later the revolution began. The purpose of their trip was to establish a working relationship between Libya’s Department of Antiquities and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

While the overarching goal is to protect and further explore the ruins at Cyrene, Oberlin’s mission is to establish a partnership with the Libyan antiquities staff, and to provide the training and tools they need to manage their resources. In fall 2010, three Libyan archeologists spent the semester at Oberlin working with Kane and Carrier to develop the Department of Antiquities’ archival records. What they found was that records are outdated and in some cases incomplete or inadequate, and that their data needed to be translated into Arabic and multiple languages. According to Kane, a review of their records found that only 10 percent of the sites could be located reliably on a map, although precise boundaries have never been established. Libyan researchers also lack information about the condition of the sites, as most haven’t been inspected in years. 

Countryman, a senior majoring in archeological studies and Greek language and literature, says it was an extraordinary privilege to accompany Kane to Libya. “I had traveled to southern Europe a couple of times, but never to anywhere in North Africa or the Middle East, so I really didn't know what to expect,” says Countryman.

“What I found was a beautiful country with people who were friendly and welcoming, and a rich and multilayered history that I had never been aware of before. It was a very exciting time to be there because we felt like the country was finally beginning to open up and there would be real opportunity for new archeological work and exchange between Libyans and westerners. There was an intense feeling of excitement at the Department of Antiquities in Cyrene that some real conservation work was going to happen at the site and at the museum.” 

Despite its importance in the Greco-Roman world, Libya doesn’t seem to be on the radar for most students of classical archeology, Countryman says. “In this way, being able to travel to Libya was invaluable for me, because it made me aware of how important this area was in antiquity and how much archaeological work could and should be done there.

“Even though I was a lone undergraduate classics and archeology student amongst highly professional and dedicated archeologists and conservators, I felt that my presence there signaled the start of something. I hope that the regime change in Libya means that the country will start to open up, and more archeologists, scholars, and students will be able to travel to this country and become more aware of the amazing cultural remains that are there.” 


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