How has the conservation of mosaics evolved in the Arab region of the Mediterranean world in recent years? What are the challenges that these countries confront in developing strategies to preserve mosaics? Conservation spoke with three specialists in the field who have devoted much of their professional efforts to the preservation of mosaics.
Amr al-Azm is the former director of conservation for the Directorate General for Antiquities and Museums in Syria. An archaeologist by training, he is the current head of the Centre for Archaeological Research and Scientific Laboratories at Damascus University.
Aïcha Ben Abed is director of monuments and sites at the Institut National du Patrimoine (INP) of Tunisia. Former director of the Bardo Museum in Tunis and curator of several international exhibitions, she has managed for the INP the collaborative project with the GCI to train technicians in the maintenance of mosaics in situ. She is the author of a number of publications on Tunisian mosaics.
Isabelle Skaf, a conservator in private practice in Beirut,
is the former head of the Conservation Laboratory at the National Museum of Lebanon, where she carried out
recovery operations for the museum's collections following the country's civil war. She is currently working on archaeological sites and coordinating conservation projects for Lebanon's Direction Générale des Antiquités.
They spoke with Martha Demas, a senior project specialist with GCI Field Projects, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: Let's start with the ways that the conservation of mosaics has evolved in the Mediterranean world over the last ten to fifteen years. How would each of you characterize the changes, if any?
Amr al-Azm: When I took over the conservation and science labs in Syria, the standard practice for mosaic conservation in Syria was basically removal. Once the mosaic was removed, it was laid onto a metal frame with reinforced concrete. You can imagine what a volatile mix that is in terms of mosaic conservation. Often these pieces would then be put on display either within museums or outside, exposed to the rain and other weather processes. Since the year 2000, I've banned the use of that technique all over Syria. There is no more pouring of concrete, and we've now moved on to lightweight frames, including Aerolam [honeycomb aluminum panels]. Although we have also experimented with cheaper options, none of our experiments has really provided us with a viable alternative. I would say that at the moment in storage, awaiting conservation, are probably about three thousand square meters of mosaics.
Martha Demas: Amr, you've stopped the policy of re-laying on cement, but are you still lifting mosaics from their original contexts?
al-Azm: Yes, we are. The reason for removal is another issue that we have to deal with. In situ conservation requires not only the Department of Antiquities saying, "we're not going to remove it," but also coordination with the archaeologists who are uncovering these mosaics, ensuring that they have sufficient funds to pay for it. You have to deal with the bureaucracy that has to fund employment for people to protect these mosaics once they're exposed. There are regulations preventing an increase in the number of employees within the public sector. So what choice do I have but to remove? At least once a mosaic's been removed, we can start to provide decent care for it, rather than allow it to deteriorate in poor storage conditions or create new problems for it once it's been laid on concrete.
Isabelle Skaf: In Lebanon, we inherited the 1950s and 1960s practice of re-laying mosaics on cement. Many of these re-laid pavements were moved because their original discovery site was destroyed. Others, however, remained on their unaffected original site. The period of the last ten or fifteen years since the civil war, with intensive reconstruction work done under pressure from developers, has consisted largely of emergency excavation—especially in Beirut. Unfortunately, most of the mosaics discovered throughout this period were removed and stored with little conservation treatment. The Department of Antiquities now faces the dilemma of what to do with all these mosaics. In fact, the problem is twofold—the older, cement-backed mosaics and the more recently detached and inadequately conserved mosaics.
Demas: You don't see an evolution toward a more acceptable solution for mosaics?
Skaf: People realize that cement is not a viable option anymore, which is a step forward. Mosaics are systematically lifted when a site is going to be destroyed. To date, there has been no discussion on a strategy to tackle this problem differently in the long term.
Aïcha Ben Abed: The Tunisian experience is a little bit different from the others. In the late 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, we worked on mosaics in situ—a Tunisian and American team with Margaret Alexander, who was president of the ICCM [International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics] at that time. We weren't happy with what we had been doing—lifting mosaics or just cleaning them, taking notes, and documenting them for the books. We started being sensitive to the disintegration of the mosaics. Many times we studied one pavement, and when we came back the next year, nothing was left.
In 1993 I was invited by the GCI to join their course in Cyprus on the conservation of excavated sites, and then I personally started to realize how important it was to keep mosaics in situ. We started this process being afraid of the idea of lifting the mosaics. And then we decided to start training technicians, because we don't have any mosaic conservators here in Tunisia. We have conservators, but they mainly specialize in museum objects. With the Getty, we started to think in terms of having a training force for maintenance. We had eight people in the first group, and we're now working with the third group. We still have lots of problems, but when I compare what we have here to what I see elsewhere, I'm happy with what we did. I think the solution can be adapted to what I see in other Arab countries. This problem of hiring people—in Tunisia we had the same problem. We could not hire any new technicians, so we had to deal with what we had—workmen or young people, with a minimum of education. We have tried to adapt the whole process of training to this profile.
Levin: Does that mean that you rarely do detachment at this point in time?
Ben Abed: We've had this campaign with all of my colleagues telling them that if they start doing any detachment or lifting, the whole international community is going to be against us! Still, with some emergency excavation, we don't have any choice and we have to detach.
al-Azm: Aïcha, I understand what you said, and that's all really wonderful. But who pays for in situ preservation? The Tunisian government? Or have you managed to get foreign excavators working in Tunisia to pay for it?
Ben Abed: We have bilateral missions but we do not have so many—maybe less than ten. It's the Tunisian government that pays for the conservation and maintenance. We include it in the budget. That's what I'm doing now. I get some money and I put a certain amount of that money into conservation.
al-Azm: It's wonderful that you have the budget from the Tunisian government to do that. One of our problems is long-term sustainability. You might have a site of 150 hectares, a site like Apamea, where you can't have just one or two guards. You need a small army of people—especially if you have mosaics there. So you have to change people's perception about why they need to keep these mosaics in situ and not steal them. If the local population is involved in the care and maintenance of these mosaics, and through development programs they feel the financial benefits of having these mosaics, then they will become guardians of the site. Instead of having to hire a hundred guards, you have a local community of maybe a thousand who will volunteer to do this. It's a long-term thing, because it will take a long time for these communities to begin to understand. In the short term, I need to get foreign missions to start putting aside parts of their budgets to pay for the in situ preservation, which they don't do now.
Ben Abed: But what about when they leave? The problem is then you have to pay from your side. Let me say something about my experience. After some contact with conservators, I came to this idea that I don't need just guards—I need people working on mosaics. And once they are on the site and working, of course they will guard it. I don't see the point of having someone standing for hours without doing anything. So we took some of these people who had been hired to be guards and we trained them for conservation maintenance.
Skaf: In Lebanon, all archaeological assets are government property. However, the relevant public authorities do not have the financial or human resources to deal with the huge conservation problems that face the country's cultural heritage. Ideally these responsibilities would be shared between them and other local organizations, such as local municipalities and nongovernmental associations. However, for reasons pertaining to the legalities involved in ownership, they are reluctant to do so. One approach would be to develop new partnership policies in which public authorities share financial responsibility, within a legal framework, with these other organizations.
Ben Abed: I don't agree with you. I think we are mixing two things. Heritage—and it's the case everywhere, as far as I know—should be the responsibility of the government. I don't think individual or private groups can really take care of the heritage. They will not give money because they think the heritage is something good—they will give money to get something in return. It should be under the control of the government. What is important is to get more expertise from outside the government. Push people to be trained in the area of heritage. But I don't think that responsibility for the heritage should be given to anyone else.
Skaf: I didn't say given. I said shared.
al-Azm:The idea of sharing or not sharing is critical. But it's not just about sharing in the sense of, "we can get an NGO in" or "only the government can deal with the problem." It's an issue of strategy. This is the core of the problem, at least in Syria. We have a very, very rich archaeological heritage. And we have more and more joint—or bilateral, as you said—excavations coming in. Sites are being opened up and materials are being brought to light. But while it's good to have great discoveries, it's a problem if you don't put in place a strategy—which is what the government has to do. In the old days, you brought all sorts of stuff out and then cherry-picked the bits you wanted and you threw away the rest. There was no such thing as cultural heritage management. Today this is unacceptable. There has to be a coherent strategy. And only the government is going to be able to do that—impose rules and conditions. If you excavate a site and you find a mosaic, you're going to have to find the money to pay for the maintenance of this mosaic. And this is what we have been pushing for in Syria. Otherwise, we might as well leave the stuff in the ground.
Demas: What do you think is the main motivating factor for all of this excavation? Is it really research oriented, or is it oriented toward exposing sites for tourism?
al-Azm: The driving force in Syria—apart from rescue excavations where you build a road, or something like that—is that every academic institution wants a piece of the pie. We give out more permits for excavations than we can manage in terms of the amount of material. There are hundreds of mosaics coming out of the ground, and there has to be a strategy for handling this material. We need to make sure we have enough storerooms to store the stuff coming out. We have to make sure there's financing available for protecting the structures that are being excavated that we wish to preserve. We have to make sure that there is money, personnel, and support for mosaic floors that are going to come out. Are we going to build a shelter over them? Are we going to remove them? Are we going to preserve them in situ? If we preserve them in situ, who is going to do the preservation? Do we have enough trained staff to do this? Before we go out and open up new sites in the name of new discoveries, let's clear up the mess we have. And if we are going to open up new sites, maybe we should think about sites that will have some sort of return in terms of tourism.
Skaf: This would be in an ideal situation. However, departments of antiquities come under a great deal of pressure to grant excavation rights to various universities and research institutions. Although these can be limited by the department in terms of number and/or time, the complexity of problems involved—administrative and financial—hampers long-term conservation decisions.
Ben Abed: For Tunisia, the process started maybe ten or fifteen years ago, when we decided to come down on this business of excavation. Except for emergency excavation, you should have only two or three excavations, maximum. We have lots of students, but we just give them already excavated study materials. Nobody is complaining about this.
al-Azm: We have 130 foreign excavations working here every year.
Skaf: Lebanon currently has only ten or twelve ongoing excavations. Emergency excavations are a different problem. I don't think stopping excavations is viable. One could suspend them for one or two years, but not indefinitely. Long-term solutions for the conservation of archaeological sites, and most particularly for the conservation of mosaics, must be found.
Ben Abed: Isabelle, what if you limited excavations to one or two a year, and not ten or twelve?
Skaf: Excavations are already limited in Lebanon. You need, however, to establish a conservation strategy, whether you have excavations or not.
Levin: Isabelle, with regard to nonemergency excavations in Lebanon, is there any sort of requirement that excavation teams have some strategy and some resources set aside for long-term maintenance of the sites?
Skaf: No. This is why I mention the idea of sharing responsibility. At the moment, the current pattern is that archaeological teams undertake the excavation, and once the dig comes to an end the Department of Antiquities resumes full responsibility for the sites. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funds, they are not always able to maintain them. Reburial options are being considered now in order to reduce maintenance costs.
Demas: What are the main impediments to achieving that type of strategy at a nationwide level?
al-Azm: In Syria we've already started doing it. When a lot of excavators reapply for their permit, they are told, "no, you cannot continue until you restore what you've already excavated." This policy, which has been coming in over the last six or seven years, has caused a lot of friction between the archaeological missions and the DGAM [Directorate General for Antiquities and Museums]. It's been a struggle forcing heads of excavations to find additional funds and resources to maintain the structures that they have excavated. The problem with mosaics is that they are more intensive in terms of the attention required, because you're preserving an object in situ.
Demas: It's one thing to have a policy for foreign excavations, but what about a policy for decision making about what we excavate and how we care for the mosaics that we already have? Where do you see the impediments of implementing that kind of policy?
Ben Abed: For many years, in the agreements that were signed between the National Tunisian Institute of Archaeology and foreign universities, we had a provision saying that some of the budget should be given to restoration. And some of these teams did great jobs. But what happened is people would leave after five, ten, or fifteen years, and we didn't have anyone in the country that could do the conservation. That's why we decided to face the problem and make the business of conservation our problem. We still now ask that a third, I think, of the budget of the foreign excavation team should be dedicated to conservation and restoration. But we had to be able to take over with conservation and maintenance. That is one of the main problems. You have to think about what's after the excavation.
Demas: That's what I was interested in getting at. What happens in the longer term? It's a sustainability question.
Skaf: In Lebanon, the reason there is no strategy is that you don't have the tools to implement it. Obsolete 1933 legislation dating back to the French Mandate, combined with inherited administrative procedures instituted under the Ottomans, make for a poor environment in which to encourage better managerial know-how. On top of all this is a lack of funds. It can be quite discouraging and frustrating trying to move forward in an environment so complicated and difficult.
al-Azm: Pretty much the same would apply here, but I would add the lack of trained personnel. What trained personnel we have are too few, and quite often their training tends to be incomplete. When I think of well-trained personnel, I think of someone like Isabelle, who studied in an academic school for conservation. We don't have that yet, but the decision makers in Syria have come to realize that this is a problem, and they are now sending out graduates—twenty to thirty graduates at last count—to get this kind of education. It will take them three to four years of study, and then they will come back and hopefully begin to implement these practices.
Demas: Both Amr and Isabelle have mentioned the need for training, and Aïcha has talked about the importance of training in Tunisia's strategy. Where would each of you see the priorities in training in your countries for mosaic conservation?
Skaf: We need to train at all levels. We need to train conservators, we need to train technicians, and we even need administrative training. Trained technicians cannot function without the logistics of a well-organized environment. A holistic approach to the problem rather than a single-aspect solution would be the most effective option.
Ben Abed: That's for sure. But who is going to do this? Do you think it's the agency or the head of whatever institution you have?
Skaf: The situations in Tunisia and in Lebanon are very different. In Tunisia, a well-established government administration has provided good results. As I've said, Lebanese authorities don't have the funding, and the preservation of the country's cultural heritage is not a top priority. An awareness campaign involving the public, ngos, and the press could be a good place to start, in parallel with the training of technicians. Because the private sector is very strong and dynamic in Lebanon, it could play a positive role in partnership with the government, and without many of its restraints.
Demas: Is the situation also different in terms of politics? Is a peaceful political context important for being able to implement these strategies?
Skaf: It's very important. Certainly the country has suffered from political uncertainty in recent years, further relocating cultural heritage to the bottom of government priorities.
al-Azm: In Syria we have winds of change blowing, with the uncertainties that winds of change bring. But they also bring new opportunities, because we are now being encouraged to change the ways we do things. Although I'm not part of the decision-making process anymore, I have colleagues who are, and I know for a fact that they are being asked to look at logistical changes, administrative changes, and changes in the ways things are generally done. With the existing sets of laws and administrative hierarchies, it's going to be difficult. But if people are willing to make changes at all these different levels, and if, as Isabelle said, we take a holistic view, then I think we have a chance of improving. It's not just about training people.
We are training a lot of people at the moment. The Italian government, for example, has just given Syria something like 12.2 million euros for cultural heritage-based projects, and a sizable chunk of that is for mosaics. We're setting up a new mosaic workshop and training twenty mosaic conservators and technicians over a two-year program. They're not going to come out being fully fledged experts, but they're going to get intensive training in how to conserve mosaics and stone. At the same time, once these people are trained, they have to be allowed to implement their training and use the new materials that they've learned about.
Demas: And, of course, they have to be hired afterward. You need that commitment from the government.
al-Azm: The Italians gave the money on the condition that they are hired at the end of it. There is that kind of commitment.
Demas: What about tourism as a factor in motivating governments to preserve sites for the public?
Skaf: In Lebanon, tourism is a great motivator. The problem is that the organizations responsible for promoting tourism are in competition with those responsible for the conservation of heritage sites, and there is no consultation or coordination between the two, which hinders both sides. The nature of the tourism also plays a part. If you look at the figures for tourists in Lebanon, half come from Arab countries, and in general they are not really interested in archaeological sites. This is not a criticism, merely a fact—they prefer other kinds of recreational activities. I don't know how much motivation there is to invest in an archaeological site when there could be much more economic benefit by investing in other tourist activities.
al-Azm: In Syria, positions are polarized. You have conservators and archaeologists on one end, and the Ministry of Tourism on the other, and every once in a while, they happen to meet in the middle over a particular issue. But it's always tense, and everybody is eyeballing the other side with great suspicion. A tourism ministry's prime objective is to get as many tourists in as possible. The danger is that you end up with overexploitation of a site, leading to its deterioration. Archaeologists, on the other hand, would like to preserve everything completely pristine and not have anybody go near it except in extreme circumstances. This is where you need what might be called cultural heritage managers who can look at the issues that are dear to the hearts of the people in tourism and look at the needs and requirements of those in archaeology and bridge the gap between the two. We need people who are trained to do that kind of work.
Ben Abed: I have this project at Dougga, one of the big Roman sites in Tunisia. The aim of the project is to get more tourists. I am the head of the project, so the head of the project is a heritage professional, not a tourism professional. The project had problems. They had thought about everything—hotels, restaurants, libraries, trains—but nobody talked about the site and its conservation. I stopped everything in the first phase of the project and said, "Well, now, first let's look at the site, and see what we can do in terms of conservation." I don't find any problem in talking about conservation with tourism people. You just have to explain. It's matter of dialogue and of give-and-take. Let them be a part of this process of conservation and explain to them that if they want to keep the site, they have to go through the conservation. Otherwise the site disappears.
Demas: But you're not getting mass tourism, are you, in Tunisia?
Ben Abed: We have had all these European tourists coming for the beach. But now the government wants another kind of tourist, a better quality tourist coming for the sites and the cultural heritage. Which is a good thing, I think.
Demas: This tourism comes mainly from outside. To what extent is there interest among Tunisians in their cultural heritage?
Ben Abed: They did start a few years ago with the schools and students. There is a program at the high schools where students have to go at least once a year to visit a site, a museum, and things like that. The idea is good, but the way it's done is not good at all, and we are evaluating this program and thinking about doing it another way. And at the same time, I think you have 10 percent of tourists from Tunisia—not so many. The locals are willing to come, but you have to attract them, you have to have educational programs and night programs, which is not done yet. We are far from this when I compare what we have to European countries. But I hope we can start seriously with this Dougga project.
Levin: Aïcha, early in this conversation you made reference to the fact that you had spoken to some of your colleagues regarding the disapproval of international organizations toward the detachment of mosaics. My question for Amr and Isabelle is how much influence, if any, do international organizations focused on conservation have on thinking and practice in Syria and Lebanon?
al-Azm: In some cases, quite a lot of influence. I can cite one example. Twelve months ago there was an illegal building erected in Palmyra, and the issue was taken on by UNESCO, which sent a letter to the DGAM saying that if you allow this particular activity to go on, then you are endangering the status of Palmyra as a World Heritage Site. The DGAM had tried for a year to get this building torn down, and it was meeting resistance from various interested parties. But as soon as this letter became publicly known in the power circles, orders came right from the top that the building was to be removed right now—and it was literally bulldozed within two or three days. World organizations can have a lot of impact.
Skaf: International organizations have some influence by virtue of their well-known prestige. What they say—especially when it comes to a World Heritage Site—has some importance. Sometimes government policy can be affected by this prestige. For instance, there is currently a project for the World Bank to sponsor the presentation, interpretation, and conservation of two sites—Baalbek and Tyre. The World Bank has stipulated certain conditions in terms of capacity building and conservation requirements. So yes, international organizations certainly do have a positive role to play.
Demas: How do you all feel about the need for specialization in conservation of mosaics? Are we specializing too much here? Is this not part of the bigger issue of archaeological sites? Is there a need to have an international organization, such as the ICCM, that looks specifically at mosaics?
Skaf: It's certainly useful to have an organization like the ICCM for mosaics, from a technical point of view. However, since anyone who works in this field will almost certainly be aware of the need to be informed of the broader issues, I don't feel there is a problem with specialization.
al-Azm: I'd agree with Isabelle entirely.
Demas: Speaking of the ICCM, the theme of the recent conference was "Lessons Learned" (see p. 20). I'm wondering if you came away with any particular lessons in mind that you felt emerged out of that conference most forcefully.
Skaf: I think the management aspect was an important topic at this conference, especially the type of management problems that directly affect conservation decisions.
al-Azm: In addition to what Isabelle mentioned, I would say the need to be informed and to kept abreast of what people are doing in terms of how they're managing their problems—the solutions coming out on a regional level. It was interesting to see how a lot of us were facing similar problems. In addition to our own unique problems, we have many similar problems, and no one was really talking to anyone else. All these people were trying to do the same thing in some way, and yet nobody had really discussed that until we met at the ICCM and started listening to each other's lectures or started meeting each other or looking at the posters.
Ben Abed: That's the feeling I had. Everyone has his own little experience and is thinking he will find the solution for everything. Then you find somebody else doing the same thing. Everything is the same—and at the same time, it's different. Lots of people have been saying, "training technicians on in situ mosaic conservation, that is what we are doing," and I have the feeling we are not really talking about the same concept. It is important that Arab countries that share the same problems, the same kind of heritage, the same mentality, build something together, because I'm sure we can understand each other. We are talking about conservation, and that means training, that means strategy, that means management.
al-Azm: Tunisia has had a much longer experience in managing its mosaics than anyone else. Yet only very recently have I been enlightened by what they've done. I only wish that I had been more aware of their experience earlier and had been able to learn from it—and perhaps that people before me had done the same, as well. And that people after me will learn from other people's experience. That is what it's all about. Learning from other people's experiences—rather than reinventing the wheel again and again and again.