© Matthias Tödt/Picture alliance/zb

Archaeology

Archaeological Information

Many cities of the Middle East are built on layers put down by different civilisations, sometimes dating back to prehistoric times. In peace times, collecting, analysing and recording information concerning the archaeological cultural heritage in built-up urban areas in databases or GIS systems is generally done only when there is a specific reason such as major construction works or large-scale urban redevelopment projects that dig deep into the ground thus possibly exposing valuable archaeological remains of previous stages of city development.

In wars and other armed conflicts, these layers can be revealed by damage inflicted by artillery shelling, airstrikes or explosions. In other cases, in the absence of evidence, they can be inadvertently destroyed in a post-conflict situation by reconstruction measures probing deep into the historic and archaeological substrate.

Relevance

Formed over centuries and millennia, it is crucial to protect these sensitive layers of archaeological heritage against irreversible destruction and thus preserve them for future generations. This entails collecting all the available archaeological records, and establishing a database on important archaeological layers, and the relevant sites and locations in the city.

At the same time, the open wounds of war damages that will only slowly close and heal, may offer unique opportunities to improve the knowledge on previous stages of city development and on the civilisations that have built the cities.

A systematic documentation of archaeological information in a post-conflict situation will therefore provide a basis both for protecting valuable cultural heritage in the process of reconstruction and restoration, and for archaeological research and analysis.

Users and target audience

The main users of systematically documented archaeological information are the institutions and stakeholders responsible for managing, planning and implementing the reconstruction and restoration of historic city centres, namely urban planners, architects and monument conservationists. The compiled information will enable them to give due consideration to archaeological assets and to make informed decisions in their reconstruction plans and projects, in particular before and during major soil intervention measures.

Systematic documentation also supports and facilitates archaeological and scientific research by providing a reference framework for archaeologists, historians, urban geographers and other scholars.

Technical approaches and instruments

Archaeological databases and archaeological base maps

A standard approach to documenting archaeological information is to create a geo-referenced database that can be used to produce thematic maps with various layers of archaeological (and other) information, as needed in a specific context.

In archaeology, such geographic information systems (GIS) are commonly used both for post-processing and analysing archaeological excavation sites (intra-site analysis) and for assessing spatial information on archaeological landscapes that combine a larger number of sites and/or excavation projects (inter-site analysis).

For the purposes of documenting archaeological information in a post-conflict situation, these systems have to be adapted to specific needs, in particular as regards archaeological information on built-up urban areas that have not previously been the subject of (extensive) research and/or excavation. To a large extent, information will have to be collected after analysing and assessing the available documents, records and research, adopting an approach similar to that applied when establishing digital archives.

This initial information will generally need to be complemented by ground checks and surveys. These cannot be performed, however, until fighting has subsided, cities and sites are accessible, and a minimum level of safety and security has been re-established.

From a longer-term perspective, such information systems need to be regularly updated with information generated in the process of reconstruction and rebuilding.

Analysis of strategraphic layers

© Mamoun Fansa

In many cases, the documentation and analysis of available information and records will need to be checked and verified on the ground through archaeological investigation and research.

The classic approach will be excavation works aiming with a stratigraphy aiming at identifying the different layers / stratifications of man-made structures, buildings and artefacts. Given the numerous layers of civilisation in many old cities of the Middle East and the time pressure for repair and reconstruction in a post-conflict situation it will be important to find a balance between the interests of archaeological research, and the needs of the people who want to return and rebuild their places of livelihood and living.

In some cases, it may be possible to apply non-invasive and virtual archaeological prospection methods to identify previously unknown or undetected archaeological sites. Although tremendous technical progress has taken place in recent years, this technology remains largely limited to the scanning of sites in open landscapes.

Delineation of special protection zones

Delineating and establishing special protection zones reflects a practical approach to gaining time in case prolonged investigation is needed to protect archaeological heritage layers underground in built-up areas of cities. It is applied in numerous of countries under a variety of names and in different forms:

  • In Greater London in the UK, Archaeological Priority Areas – APA, are defined as “areas areas where there is significant known archaeological interest or potential for new discoveries” and where urban development or construction projects might negatively affect heritage assets.
  • In Switzerland, the establishment of archaeological protection zones by the (archäologische Schutzzonen) provides the legal basis for temporary stopping building activities and construction works to allow for archaeological research.
  • In Germany, “municipal building oversight includes the examination of all applications for construction permits to determine whether archaeological sites or listed historical monuments are endangered by a project. If this is the case, the builder and architect are invited to discuss the reasons and the estimated duration of the archaeological rescue excavations before construction can actually begin and thus give the builder planning reliability.
  • The duration of the archaeological investigations depends on the size of the area involved and the depth of the archaeological layers as well as the type and complexity of the expected finds. In the course of the approximately one hundred years of historical-monument protection in the urban area of Cologne more than 3000 old find reports have been filed away so that find expectations can often be very precisely predicted.” (source: website of the Romano-Germanic Museum in Cologne).

In reconstruction after armed conflict, when there is an urgent need for building activities with major excavation works, the designation of special archaeological protection zones can help to prevent important archaeological heritage layers from being damaged or destroyed. In principle, such zones are relevant for all works that entail significant (underground) soil intervention – not only excavations for buildings, but also underground works for utilities (e.g. water and gas pipes), which may not need planning permission.

The designation/establishment of special protection zones usually depends on the existence of statutory provisions enshrined in national law. If applied properly, this approach can be key to planning for culturally-sensitive reconstruction.

Archaeological Information for the Old City of Aleppo

© H. Kuhle for CIM

Despite the wealth of information that exists on the different stages of historical city development, there is no systematic database on the archaeological heritage of the city of Aleppo and its surroundings. Knowledge concerning the archaeological layers underneath the Old City of Aleppo is limited and patchy, covering only a few core areas, such as the citadel and the main bazar, which still shows the pattern of the old Roman-Hellenistic city and thus reflects a specific period in history.

In view of the massive war damage in many parts of the Old City and the resulting need for comprehensive reconstruction, there is a serious risk of necessary works impinging on and destroying sensitive archaeological layers.

Against this background, the Friends of the Old City of Aleppo in Germany have joined forces with scientists and researchers from Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences (HTW Berlin) to compile all the available archaeological information on the Old City of Aleppo in a project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

The outcome will be a layer of archaeological information that can be integrated into existing Geographical Information Systems (GIS) such as the morphological map of the Old City of Aleppo, the spatial information of the Syrian Heritage Archive Project (SHAP) or, with a longer-term perspective in the digital geographical database of Syrian excavation sites.

The project further aims to develop the professional capacity and expertise of Syrian archaeologists through training and practical exposure to documenting and analysing archaeological information. Special attention is to be paid in this context to methods of protecting archaeological assets before and during soil intervention measures, including the recovery or in-situ conservation of any archaeological relics found while debris is being cleared or during subsequent construction works.

Compiling, analysing and recording the archaeological information in a special GIS layer will enable the project team to identify appropriate conservation measures, such as the establishment of special archaeological protection zones.

For this purpose, all available data will be mapped and geo-referenced. Where needed, additional geological information will be gathered, and a stratigraphy of geological layers established. This will allow scientists to assess where underground archaeological structures are likely to need protection.

Since Aleppo’s history cannot be fully appreciated without giving consideration to the archaeological sites in the city’s hinterland, the project also encompasses the recording of archaeological information about the surrounding area. It will cover around a dozen significant and currently endangered archaeological sites. Their importance arises from the shifting sands of political power in the region – the seat of power has not always been in Aleppo, but has transferred temporarily to other towns in the region in both ancient and even more recent history. In addition, war damage is not restricted to the city itself, but encompasses the surrounding area as well.

Information for the project is to be collected from satellite images as well as pictures of sites and excavations, and documented in (archaeological) cadastral maps.

Apart from providing a better basis for protecting the archaeological heritage, the collected data will enrich future academic research on the history of Aleppo and its environs.

Further Reference and Resources

Date: 16. August 2018 | Last modified: 5. June 2019

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