44th Annual Meeting – Emergency Session, May 17, 2016, “Emergency Preservation during Armed Conflict: Protecting the Ma’arra Museum in Syria” by Brian Daniels and Corine Wegener

I wanted to attend this presentation because I couldn’t imagine what type of emergency response would be possible in a situation as horrific as the one in Syria.  When your life is in danger or there isn’t enough to eat, how can you think about saving artifacts or cultural sites?  What I learned from Brian Daniels’ talk was inspiring and thought-provoking.
Brian Daniels is the director of Research and Programs at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. A primary focus of the Center is community archaeology, an archaeological practice dedicated to engaging local communities in the preservation of cultural heritage.  Could some of the practices of community archaeology be usefully carried over to a conflict zone?  How could a response to safeguarding Syrian heritage be local, empowering, and post-colonial? How could Syrian cultural heritage professionals be involved?
This thinking led to the creation of the SHOSI (Safeguarding the Heritage of Syrian Initiative) project where outside experts and Syrian professionals worked together to determine what might be saved and how it could be done.  Daniels gave three examples of the work undertaken by the team.
The first was at the Ma’aara Museum where there were numerous large Roman and early Christian mosaics installed into the fabric of the building.  Based on protocols developed to protect Leonardo’s Last Supper during World War II, the Syrian team faced the mosaics with a water based adhesive and fabrics readily available at Turkey’s equivalent of Home Depot.  Sandbags were placed in front of wall-mounted mosaics or on top of floor mounted ones.  The non-Syrian experts helped procure the necessary supplies.  The museum was bombed on two separate occasions, but the mosaics survived.
The second example was the intervention at the bronze-age site of Ebla known for a major find of cuneiform tablets in the 1960s.  Satellite images showed changes in the excavated structures, suggesting disturbance to the site as a result of looting.  The Syrian team confirmed that the mud brick buildings had been tunneled into.  They used concrete blocks and a mud mortar to help shore up the walls, and as a result the damaged walls did not collapse in the winter rains.
The last example was not a success story.  The 5th-century Church of St. Simeon Stylites is part of an important early Byzantine complex.  Armed groups were operating near the church and looters were digging in the complex for mosaics.  As the team was trying to decide what to do, the area was bombed and the church was damaged.
I am not an archaeological conservator, and one of the powerful aspects of the presentation was seeing images of these incredible Syrian sites.  And the extreme risks that Syrian heritage professionals were taking seemed much more real when you saw that their faces had to be blurred out in the presentation.
As with many talks at this meeting, Daniels and Wegener have been thinking about how our profession can be inclusive, responsive, and involved in the pressing problems of the 21st century.