As a blogger who cares about history, archaeology, and the ways history is remembered, I have a soft spot for newly rediscovered ruins of ancient civilizations - particularly those that completely change the way we see the past.
Unfortunately, many of these sites just so happen to be buried underneath conflict zones involving the U.S. military.
All Roads Lead to Gaddafi's Stockpile
I first became aware of Libya's relatively well-preserved Roman ruins from reading an advertorial (a paid advertisement designed to look like an article) in the back of a Foreign Affairs issue years ago. The 4-page advertorial highlighted all the wonderful opportunities available in investing in a tiny tourism industry that was just bound to grow, particularly on the strength from the old Roman ruins.Of course, that's easier said than done.
Now Libya's Roman magnet for future hoteliers may be where Gaddafi is hiding weapons...and NATO hasn't ruled them out as a bombing target.
The potential is clearly visible at Leptis Magna. Although it is a U.N. World Heritage Site, less than two hours' drive from the capital, there are no luxury hotels in the vicinity. A few stalls sell postcards and other tourist items, but Libya has yet to make the most of its long Mediterranean coastline the way neighboring Tunisia and Egypt have theirs.
Alarm about the archaeological site soared this week after NATO officials said they could not rule out bombing in the area if Gaddafi’s troops are found to be using it as a military staging ground.Obviously, tourists won't be flying into Tripoli anytime soon, but who knows if there will be anything left to see when they finally get there.
“For us as Libyans, these ancient monuments are part of our proud history,” rebel spokesman Mohamed Ali said via Skype from Doha. “They are more precious to us than oil.”
Susan Kane, a professor of archaeology at Oberlin College in Ohio who has done extensive work in Libya, said Libyan contacts she deems credible have told her the government is storing munitions in cultural sites, such as museums and ruins. She said that fighting around Leptis Magna would be a tragedy.
At least there are still plenty of other things buried in the sands of the Sahara.
Rocking The Cradle of Civilization in Modern-Day Iraq
Aside from reports of people looting the history museum in Baghdad soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein, there hasn't been much news about any recent findings from the numerous ancient civilizations that called modern-day Iraq home - after all, IED's and regional warfare have a funny way of scaring away archaeologists and leaving 4,000-year-old ruins exposed to the elements.
The Sumerian capital boasted paved roads, tree-lined avenues, schools, poets, scribes, and stunning works of art and architecture of the kind discovered by Woolley and his team.
But war and strife over the past 30 years closed Ur to foreign archaeologists, and since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein Baghdad's struggling government has had bigger priorities than funding large-scale digs in a country with more than 12,000 documented archaeological sites.
Those who have come, however, have largely chosen to focus on the autonomous and relatively safe Kurdistan region in the north for excavations.
They have mostly avoided Ur and other sites in the rest of the country as safety remains a key issue, even though violence levels are lower than their peak in 2006 and 2007.
Luckily for history buffs, Iraq has recently announced plans to restore and preserve the ancient Ziggurat at Ur. Maybe the suicide bombers will forget it's there.
The Many Layers of Yemen
In contrast to Libya and Iraq, several archaeological surveys have been conducted in Yemen in recent years. While I haven't been able to find any news stories about archaeologists currently in Yemen, I'm sure more people are interested in taking cover right now.
Al-Qaida-linked militants seized control last month of two towns in Abyan, another southern province, and briefly took control of several neighborhoods in the neighboring province of Lahj last week.
Some of these militants belong to groups that have been quietly tolerated by longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh and used to counter the weight of other extremists or against secessionists in the mostly secular south of the country.
Even before the drone strikes on Al-Qaeda-linked militants and the political protests, widespread smuggling and looting of Yemen's ancient Jawf kingdom sites have been major problems for those trying to preserve and understand what came before.
Scientists at the Anthropological Survey of India claim to have found evidence of an ancient brain surgical practice on a Bronze Age Harappan skull.However, more recent Buddhist relics recovered by an Italian team were excavated under a low-profile for fear of their possible destruction by Taliban-style militants.
The skull, believed to be around 4,300 years old, bears an incision that indicates an “unequivocal case” of a surgical practice known as trepanation, says a research paper published in the latest edition of Current Science.
“No specific archaeological monuments were targeted by the extremists in Swat or adjoining areas,” said Director Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, Dr Luca Maria Olivieri. He was addressing a conference titled “Italian Archaeology in Pakistan-Past and Present” held here at the Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) on Wednesday.
Talking to The Express Tribune, he said that somehow, the Taliban did not damage the archaeological monuments, give or take a few exceptions. He was pointing to the Fazlullah-led Taliban militants on the 230-feet high, seventh century Buddha, carved in a rock at the lap of a mountain in Jehandad village, Swat.
So What Do We Do?
While geopolitics shouldn't stand in the way of the pursuit of knowledge, I do wonder if it's better for some of these past ruins to stay buried for the present - if only in hopes that today's conflicts flow into the past for future civilizations to ponder over alongside the ones still buried.
For all we know, there are plenty more ruins from all of these civilizations (and more from ones we don't remember) waiting to be dug up, cataloged and remembered for posterity.