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Lost Roman Treasure

Last-Ditch Archeology


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The image of rising waters creeping up hillsides behind a newly built dam, as occurred at the Roman site of Zeugma in recent years, is an apt symbol of the many hazards that imperil archeological sites, not just in Turkey but in many countries (see Damming the Past). In this interview, Dr. Gaetano Palumbo, the World Monument Fund's Director of Archeological Conservation for Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, touches on some of the challenges facing archeologists whose passion and very livelihood continue to be threatened by development.

Classic finds

NOVA: You recently visited Zeugma. I realize a lot of it is now underwater, but what did you think of the site?

Palumbo: The site is in a splendid position. It's on a hillside now overlooking this blue-water lake. You can understand that obviously a lot has been flooded, but there are still many remains above water.

Unfortunately, it has not been well presented. Some work has been conducted on one of the villas that has remained above the waterline, but only now are local authorities undertaking some presentation efforts. There is a visitor's center and ticket offices, but no one was there when I visited, and the site is barely indicated anyway from the main roads. So there is not much to see right now.

Eventually, I think, we'll probably reveal more of the site, and probably some presentation can be made about what has been done in terms of salvage work and what has been found there. Maybe visitors can go to the Gaziantep Museum and see some of the mosaics that were retrieved [see View the Mosaics]. The mosaics are now being conserved by a group of Italian conservators, who are doing an excellent job of bringing back the splendor of these incredible works of art.

NOVA: Is there any chance that more fabulous mosaics like those already discovered could still lie down there?

Palumbo: I would believe so. If you consider that Zeugma is three times the size of Pompeii and only a fraction of the site has been excavated, you can easily imagine that a lot awaits discovery there. I wouldn't say it is lost forever—unlike a natural lake, a dam can always be emptied—but of course the deposit of silt and the water-logging of some of these features will make discovery of additional mosaics more difficult in the underwater section. A lot remains to be excavated in the area that was not flooded, so there are chances for more discoveries there.

“Salvage work does not allow for adequate scientific work, so it becomes a kind of treasure hunt. That’s a pity.”

NOVA: Is anyone planning to continue the archeological work underwater?

Palumbo: Underwater, no. To my knowledge, no one is interested in doing it there at the moment.

NOVA: Will the mosaics survive well underwater?

Palumbo: The mosaics themselves, perhaps yes. The problem is the support of the mosaics, which is usually a type of mortar that would not survive too well. Water-logging will erode it away, which could cause the collapse of the mosaic. But few studies have been done on the long-term consequences of water-logging on mosaics, so we really don't know.

Salvaging Zeugma

NOVA: As an archeologist, how does it feel to see such sites like Zeugma lost?

Palumbo: Well, of course, it's painful, but what is more painful is the loss of information. Salvage work does not allow for adequate scientific work, so in the end it becomes a kind of treasure hunt in which we just try to retrieve things. That's a pity.

NOVA: Have you done salvage archeology yourself?

Palumbo: Yes, though not at the scale of Zeugma—much smaller sites. In Jordan in the early 1990s, I excavated a Roman fort that was on the right-of-way of a new highway going from Amman to Jerash. Unfortunately, the fort was lost to construction, so we had to do a very quick survey and some salvage excavation. Years earlier near Rome we did numerous emergency surveys during the construction of several highways and new housing projects. There, too, a lot remained to be discovered and a lot was lost.

NOVA: Does salvage archeology fly in the face of an archeologist's typical training—to be painstakingly careful and thorough?

Palumbo: That is partially true, yes. On the other hand, salvage archeology is part of our profession, so we are developing procedures and techniques to make the best of the situation. Salvage archeology compromises typical archeological scientific procedures, of course. But at the same time it does not mean we compromise the quality of work. We do high-quality work while doing it fast. Documentation is the most important thing. We try to overdocument rather than underdocument, so even if the site is lost or buried, we can still retrieve information from it.

NOVA: Why did it take so long for archeological salvage work to begin at Zeugma?

Palumbo: Actually, archeological work had already been conducted for some years. There was the mission by Dr. David Kennedy from New South Wales University in the early '90s, for example. The problem is that that was a typical archeological project—just short seasons, one or two months a year—so it wasn't round-the-clock salvage work. Unfortunately, there was not, I believe, much coordination and probably not much money available for salvage work to be conducted at Zeugma. That is why work got underway late and with little money. Only when teams from France and Germany and Switzerland came forward was it possible to do something more.

Managing threats

NOVA: Dams are just one of many hazards to ancient sites and monuments, of course. What are some of the other most significant types of hazards?

Palumbo: In general, it's infrastructure development and population growth, industrialization and pollution. A lot of issues are linked with the way our modern societies work and what they require—housing, roads, dams. Dams and their reservoirs have the largest impact because they cover very large areas, while other projects usually have smaller footprints. With smaller projects, it's easier to do salvage work or to propose some realignment of roads, for example, especially if this is done at the design phase of the project, when it's still possible to realign without spending too much. What's really important is to think about early coordination between a construction project and a cultural risk assessment, so damage to cultural heritage can be minimized.

NOVA: Do archeologists and local people ever collaborate to fight development? If so, have such partnerships ever met with success?

Palumbo: This is a very important question. Unfortunately, archeologists have not been famous for collaborating with local people. There are not many examples of archeologists working successfully with local populations. In the Coa Valley in Portugal a dam project was cancelled after the discovery of important rock art, which UNESCO later declared a World Heritage Site. But ironically, there the people were not in favor of the cancellation, because they were seeing the dam as a way of improving the economic condition in the area. They were suspicious of an archeological site, especially one of a type that usually does not draw many tourists.

“That’s the impact of a dam: the fact that we don’t even know what we are losing, let alone the fact that we are losing it.”

In other circumstances, like, for example, the Three Gorges dam in China, the strong governmental position in favor of the dam makes it very difficult for archeologists to work with local populations, especially at the scale of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people being displaced. The scale sometimes does not allow for an interaction between archeologists and environmentalists, either. In general, environmentalists are against the construction of very large dams, which not only have a huge impact on lifestyle but also on the way that nature works in certain areas.

Attitudes are changing, however. Archeologists are taking a more ethical position of basically working for the society and not against it, especially for the interests of local people. This position is bringing archeologists and local populations closer on many issues, especially where land issues are concerned.

Dam losses

NOVA: What is the scale of the loss of cultural heritage that Three Gorges will bring about?

Palumbo: At the beginning of the project, a survey showed that the dam would affect about 42 cultural heritage sites. After a more careful estimate and some surveys, the number has grown to 1,300 sites, and this is likely to increase given the size of the project.

In countries like China and those in the Middle East, the density of archeological resources is staggering. We're talking about dozens of sites every square kilometer, if we consider a site any trace of human use that has left any kind of relic. A site could be an entire city or a flint-making site where prehistoric people produced their weapons. The issue is that these sites are not recorded, and feasibly they will never be properly recorded or understood. So that's the impact of a dam: the fact that we don't even know what we are losing, let alone the fact that we are losing it.

NOVA: What kinds of sites will be lost to Three Gorges?

Palumbo: There are some very important temples, some significant standing constructions, but there are also some very large archeological sites that have never been excavated, and probably there is no time for excavating them properly.

This is true in many other places. There are other dams in Turkey that are being built now that are also affecting some very large archeological sites. Turkey already considers one of them an historical site—the Kurdish site of Hasankeyf at Ilisu Dam. That is now being excavated. There are also some very important medieval and earlier sites which will be flooded. This creates a very embarrassing situation for Turkey, which is basically violating its own laws, because a protected site cannot be destroyed or relocated.

In Iraq the same thing: There is a dam now being built on the Tigris that will likely flood Assur, a large archeological site that has not been properly excavated. In India on the Narmada River, only about five percent of the 700 square kilometers that the lake will cover has been investigated properly, and dozens of sites have been found. So you can imagine that we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of archeological sites there that we'll never know existed.

Lessons learned

NOVA: What did the general archeological community take away from the work at Zeugma about how better to go about protecting cultural heritage?

Palumbo: I think our main recommendation now is for governments to develop archeological site inventories and surveys that will list the number and type of archeological sites in certain areas, so that we can be better prepared to advise governments or construction projects about whether the impact will be acceptable or unacceptable from a cultural-heritage standpoint. As I said before, an intervening feasibility study allows for changes in a project without incurring excessive costs in terms of changing plans.

NOVA: Can you name one or two of the most famous monuments or sites that were saved before dam waters inundated them?

Palumbo: The most famous project is still the Aswan Dam in Nubia in southern Egypt, where the Abu Simbel temples were moved up above the line of the flood. These were major, major engineering construction projects that involved the participation of many countries at a cost that I don't think is feasible in times like these, where cost efficiency is important. I think those projects done in the '60s are probably the last of that kind of large intervention. Now mitigation is more like retrieving or documenting rather than moving entire monuments.

I would like to remind people that with Abu Simbel everything had to be cut in pieces and remounted, so while it was an admirable engineering feat, it is inconsistent with another way of thinking about monuments, namely, leaving them in their original locations.

NOVA: As an archeologist, was that difficult to see this great temple of Abu Simbel carved up, so it was no longer its original self?

Palumbo: Yes, it has lost much of its originality. It's not in its original position; its orientation is not the same. There are many aspects that make this monument like a mock-up of what it was. Maybe with modern ethics, it would not be done today. The site probably would be allowed to be swelled up by the waters. No matter how difficult it might be to think about its inundation, today many people might consider this the lesser of two evils.

NOVA: SCUBA divers could still have enjoyed it, after all.

Palumbo: Oh, absolutely!

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Zeugma with dam beyond

With the newly completed Birecik Dam in the distance, archeological teams rush to unearth Zeugma's priceless artifacts before they're out of reach.

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Daedalus/Icarus mosaic

In this mosaic, a Zeugma masterpiece, Daedalus and Icarus build a wooden cow in which Pasiphae (seated at left) will hide to consummate her love for a bull (see View the Mosaics).

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Three Gorges dam

Experts have identified at least 1,300 archeological sites that will vanish beneath the waters backed up by China's massive Three Gorges Dam.

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Narmada protest

For these Indians, the loss of archeological sites from proposed dams along the Narmada River takes second place to the loss of their land.

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Lost Roman Treasure Web Site Content
View the Mosaics

View the

Take a closer look at Zeugma's famous mosaics.

Last-Ditch Archeology


Conservationist Gaetano Palumbo on salvage archeology.

Remote Excavation


Forget trowels and brushes. Think GIS, satellite imagery, etc.

Damming the Past

Damming the Past
Ancient sites threatened in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.

Interview conducted and edited by Peter Tyson, editor in chief of NOVA online

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