New Ways to Protect Old Sites ARCHAEOLOGY

Article excerpt

SOME 3,600 years after she sat beside King Akhenaton as queen of Egypt, Nefertari can still draw a crowd - or so the Egyptian government hopes.

Grave robbers stole her mummy long ago, but the queen's visage still peers out from paintings on the walls of her mountainside tomb. Years of painstaking efforts have restored many of the images in the Valley of the Queens at Luxor. Soon, Cairo will open the tomb to visitors to help bolster its flagging tourist trade.

But archaeologists worry that tourists trouping through the rabbit-warren passages will speed destruction of the artwork.

From Nefertari's tomb in the dusty Egyptian desert to Civil War hulks off the United States, archaeological sites are under increasing threat. Much of it is from the natural forces of erosion, earthquake, and decay. But new high-tech tools, a growing appetite for antiquities, sprawling development, and war are also imperiling world ruins.

"The human threats are the most pressing," says Ricardo Elia, associate professor of archaeology at Boston University and editor of the Journal of Field Archaeology. In many areas, these threats have reached "crisis proportions," he says.

Recognition of the threats has led to a quiet revolution during the past 30 years in the way many archaeologists think about sites and how to explore them. Wholesale excavation has given way to digging selectively on the most-threatened sites.

Extrapolating from limited numbers of samples or structures dug up, archaeologists are able to glean information about the life and times of a site's former inhabitants while leaving much of the ruins untouched. Others sites are left alone entirely until time, money, or technology allows less-intrusive exploration.

Legal experts also are trying to strengthen international laws regarding artifacts. In June, the United Nations Environmental, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held a 17-day conference in Rome that could begin to stem illegal trafficking in priceless finds.

Among other things, the new convention would allow source countries to use the courts in a receiving country to try and retrieve stolen artifacts. The pact, signed by 60 countries, requires enabling legislation to take effect. Until the end of the 1950s, "archaeology was about getting objects," says Robert Johnston, a professor of imaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who has been working sites in the Middle East for 20 years. "In early digs, they would throw away whatever wasn't pretty."

But that began to change with the "growing realization that while archaeological sites are natural resources, they do not regenerate," says Frank McManamon, chief archaeologist for the United States National Park Service and a delegate to the Rome meeting. "Whatever we have now, that's it. We'd better start actively protecting these things."

"There has been a massive shift in priorities," agrees Brian Fagan, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

And a shift in techniques. Finesse is replacing the bull-in-a-china-shop approach to mapping an area once it is identified. Where teams might have gone in with bulldozers and backhoes, they now use ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers, and devices that measure changes in the ground's ability to conduct electricity.

Techniques that once relied on the decay rate of radioactive carbon-14 to gauge the age of organic material are giving way to mass spectroscopy, which requires a smaller sample size to date antiquities. …