Archaeological sites are precious things. They lie safe underground forgotten for generations until some intrepid archaeologists come and carefully expose them. As an archaeologist myself, I’ve often wondered why we do this, especially given some of the consequences.
As you might recall, last year I hiked out to Lille, Alberta with my boyfriend and a friend of mine (the former has worked at ‘Umayri in 2012, the latter is a trained archaeologist). We marvelled at the beauty of the site, decayed, but still shining in its own right. It had been a long day of hiking to try to find Lille in the first place. The directions I found on other websites were vague. We had been determined to find it, though, and eventually did stumble upon the stone foundations and abandoned coke ovens that personify Lille.
When we made it back home, I sat down to write a blog post. I had taken copious notes as we went that day and photographs of each step of the way. In my head, I had decided I would write a walkthrough about how to get to Lille. But then I had a second thought… If more people could get to Lille, it would eventually be lost. I could see people taking a brick home to sit on the mantle commemorating their journey. Given enough time, all the bricks would be gone.
I wrote my post without a mention of the directions.
Several years ago, the construction of the new airport highway uncovered the remains of a Byzantine-era church on the hill directly across from Tall al ‘Umayri. Representatives from Jordan’s Department of Antiquities excavated the site and fought to save it from the expansion of the highway. A beautiful mosaic floor with an inscription was unearthed at the site. The church was in exquisite condition when I first saw it in 2010.
After the participants from this years dig expressed an interest in going, I told many of them they were in for a treat. I told them about the pillars, the mosaics, and the cool underground rooms. After finishing up for the day, we piled on the bus and came up to the site.
It was like looking at the dead, mutilated remains of someone I loved.
The pillars had all been knocked over. Garbage and empty liquor bottles were strewn across the site and jumbled into corners. Trenches had been cut and holes crudely pock-marked the area surrounding the building. One trench cut right through the middle of the mosaic floor (as seen in the photo above – the mosaic is not visible thanks to a coating of sand, placed to protect it).
Why would someone do this?
The unfortunate answer is that artifacts may seem priceless, but in truth, everything has monetary value. The demand by collectors for unique artifacts has lead people looking for a quick buck to loot and plunder archaeological sites around the world. ‘Umaryri East was destroyed because someone saw they could make a profit off of it. It was destroyed because someone wanted to have an artifact in their home they could show their friends.
Several months ago, I posted the above photograph on my Instagram account. One of the greatest benefits about being an archaeological photographer is that I get to spend a lot of one-on-one time with beautiful ancient artifacts.
It hadn’t been more than a week after we visited and mourned ‘Umayri East that someone posted a comment on this long-forgotten Instagram picture.
Having such a comment come through so close to experiencing the destruction of ‘Umayri East made it especially poignant. I would have been infuriated anyway, but especially now. The fact that he made the comment “yes I am a dealer” means that he even recognized that there was something wrong with that, but he continued to argue with me.
I can understand the desire for something unique, something ancient. We experience it when we find something amazing while digging. The thrill of holding something beautiful that was made thousands of years ago, that hasn’t seen light since it was buried by time.
We have an ethical obligation to share these objects, to study them collectively, to appreciate the cultural heritage of humanity. There is never an opportunity to just make a new one. When these sites are destroyed, they are gone. We can try and recreate them, but it’s just never the same.
The good news is that there is a way of possessing an archaeological site or artifact and showing it off in the comfort of your home with friends: photography. Not only can photography recreate a site, but it can capture a moment.
Like when the clouds rose dramatically and gave you a sense of wonder…
Or when the late-afternoon light filled you with peace…