Poster announcing the Conference
On the 5th and the 6th of November the American Academy in Rome hosted the conference Saving Cultural Heritage in Crisis Areas. The conference was held at the amazing venue of Villa Aurelia, build by Cardinal Girolamo Farnese atop the Gianiculum in the seventeenth century and now property of the American Academy. This event, organisedby C.Brian Rose, James B. Pritchard, Lucy Shoe Meritt and Laurie Rush with the support of the Getty Foundation and of the Andrew Mellon Foundation brought together a number of experts and leaders in the field of cultural heritage to explore case studies and new actions to prevent damage and protect culture and cultural heritage in times of crisis.

Group photo of all the conference speakers
The welcoming statement of the Ambassador of the United States to the Republics of Italy and San Marino was followed by a first session dedicated to the topic of Disaster response. Aparna Tandon (ICCROM Project Specialist) opened the session with a moving presentation of the activities carried out by ICCROM in Haiti after the earthquake. She vividly described the situation found upon her arrival and illustrated the numerous challenges she had to face to set up an ICCROM training course trying at the same time to take advantage of the opportunity to rescue art and artifacts collections. 

The second speaker, Patrick Daly (Asia Research Institute, Senior Research Fellow) explored the ways in which Cultural Heritage could and should be part of a coherent post disaster action. Bringing as a case study the impact that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had on the cultural heritage of indonesian affected areas, he explored examples of  response and recovery that saw the involvement of the community and integrated cultural heritage in response and recovery actions. What I personally found interesting was the comprehensive approach of this paper that looked at the problem from different angles and  took into consideration all cultural aspects of the community life, for instance, including in the picture considerations on intangible heritage, religious and gender issues. Constntly keeping in touch with reality the author also mentioned the ethical challenges that he had to face, in particular in the initial post-disaster phase when the priorities are set and a numeber of forces are working against cultural efforts.

His Excellency Omar S. Sultan
After this session dedicated to disaster response, the conference moved in a different direction and dedicated the following sessions mainly to the presentation and discussion of the Preservation of Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones. A number of papers looked at this topic from a range of different perspectives, presenting studies from Iraq, Libya and Albania, or looking at Prevention and Protection through Education and Documentation.
It is in this context that His Excellency Omar S. Sultan,  Afghan Deputy Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, spoke about the preservation of cultural heritage in Afghanistan and in particular of the Early Buddhist Site of Mes Aynak. In his talk he introduced a number of issues related with site protection and management to prevent the illicit traffic of antiquities and the widespread looting of archaeological sites. His Excellency proudly spoke about the importance of cultural heritage in the promotion of national integrity and identity. His presentation showed a series of stunning images of the most recent archaeological discoveries in the Logar province and discussed the preservation strategies for the archaeological sites threatened by mining development. This talk gave a lot more than a mere description of the current situation in Afghanistan it also sent a positive message about the efforts made nationally and internationally to help Afghanistan stressing the importance of cultural resources as much as any other resource. As his excellency said  "A well-functioning national management of cultural heritage is a crucial element of rebuilding the Afghan national state".

The first day of the conference was closed by a contribution from the General Pasquale Muggeo (Comandandte, Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale). The General described to the audience the unique experience of the Carabinieri in the protection of Cultural Property and stressed the importance of international agreements and cooperation.

Mounir Bouchenaki, Director General of ICCROM
The second day of the conference featured a number of unique presentations.  Many were related to the different strategies adopted to include Cultural Heritage Protection in military training. Lieutenant Colonel Hodzic, as chief og the Education and Training Development Department, spoke about the programmes of the Peacekeeping Institute of Sarajevo (Bosnia-Hezegovina). While Brian Rose and Laurie Rush illustrated the various training tools adopted to train the US troops about cultural heritage issues both before and during deployment.

More incredible images were shown by Sarah Parcak and Roberto Nardi. Both internationally recognised professionals constantly dealing with archaeological sites in danger. The first one illustrated how the application new technology like remote sensing and satellite imagery can help monitoring archaeological sites affected by heavy looting. The second one described how an amazing archaeological site, like Zeugma in Turkey, can be rescued and preserved by the raising waters of the Euphrate Dam even when working against time and in extremely difficult conditions.

In the afternoon James Lessard and Christina Luke brought again the 'local communities' into de debate, presenting their personal and professional experience in mediating and engaging with local communities to achieve knowledge raise awareness and be able to complete their extremely diverse projects. Each single session was followed by a lively debate and stimulating discussion.

From the left: Christopher Calenza, Brian Rose, Laurie Rush and Mounir Bouchenaki
It is very difficult to summarise in a comprehensive way these two incredibly intense days. Each panelist approached the audience to share and discuss their points of view, and certainly the final round table was the moment in which the audience more actively engaged in the conversation. In fact, the organisers decided to close the conference with a session titled Conversations that Matter.  
Chaired by Christopher S. Calenza, Director of the American Academy in Rome, Brian Rose, Laurie Rush and Mounir Bouchenaki made some conclusive remarks and discussed the observations coming from the audience in light of their great experience in the field. 


For more details:
Conference Programme

The Kabul National Museum  opened a brand new exhibition to display a range of artifacts recently excavated in the Logar province.  The amazing site of Mes Aynak located  approximately 30 km south-south-east of Kabul, is the home to an extremely rich archaeological site. The remains of pits, wells and smelting furnaces as well as the name of the site that can be translated as 'little copper well', clearly indicate that  area has been the focus of copper working since ancient times. However,  the site was a lot more than a mere focus of mining activities.

During past few years, Afghan archaeologists and members of  DAFA (Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan) worked together, to rescue  a complex of monasteries dating back to the early Buddhist era. It is true that beneath the ruins lies the rich and  unexploited copper mine which, rediscovered  in the occasion of some testing carried out by the Chinese Metallurgical Group Corporation (MGC), is now threatening the preservation of the archaeological site. Many stupas, chapels, monastic quarters and other settlement and religious structures are in danger, the extension of the site makes it impossible to rescue it in its entirety and the mining work might require the demolition of large portions of it.

Undoubtedly, the resuming of the mining activity in the area, granted by the inflow of foreign investments, will be an important source of revenue for Afghanistan. However, Afghans should not be left with the dilemma of choosing between economic growth and cultural heritage, as Nushin Arbabzadah suggests. Archaeology could play an important role for this war-torn society and become a mean to promote a new secular Afghan identity that, even if still centrally based on Islam, could learn to accept, respect and appreciate also its pre-islamic heritage.   To say it with the words of Brendan Cassar :  to encourage a culture of peace it is necessary to ground it in the concepts of cultural diversity but also of a new shared national identity.  To do so archaeology must be very careful,  excavations and successive exhibitions of finds should not be affected by  new post-colonial attitudes, and the Afghans should become fully involved in the discovery and preservation of their past. For  this reason, it is important that the amazing archaeological finds are now not touring the world but on display in Afghanistan and for the Afghans.

However, it is difficult to be able to judge the situation from here, and it is possible  that given the current situation very few afghans will have the opportunity to access the museum and enjoy its exhibitions. Change in will not happen overnight! 
Often responsibilities for a climate of insecurity and violence should be shared. Only by being firm in condemning  hostile acts of intolerance towards Islam we, as Westerners, can positively contribute to the long and difficult process of pacification. 


More on this topic:
Mes Aynak
Brian Rose in Kabul, representing the AIA (archaeological Institute of America
Afghan Buddhist relics: Archaeologists issue warning
Chinese mine in Afghanistan threatens ancient find
Lawler, A (2011) Mining Afghanistan's Past. Will economic pressure destroy the country's Buddhist heritage? Archaeology. January/February, 18-23.