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