Safeguarding Libya's heritage – King’s College London

Between March and October 2011 NATO initiated airstrikes against Libyan governmental forces, partly to protect civilians embroiled in the country’s high-profile civil war. As bombing began, the international community united in its efforts to protect the future of Libya for its people.

Dr Will Wootton, a Lecturer in Roman Art in the Department of Classics, was halfway through organising a conservation project to take place in Libya when the country’s political situation deteriorated. Working with his colleague Hafed Walda, Dr Wootton was about to implement a series of workshops helping local specialists protect priceless ancient Punic, Greek and Roman mosaics, which were deteriorating through lack of care – in part due to neglect under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

But when political instability worsened, the academic was faced with a new objective: how to protect Libya’s unique archaeological heritage for future generations.

In the run up to the war a number of academics, including Dr Walda and Dr Wootton, were approached by the charity Blue Shield and heritage organisation ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) to provide a list of culturally important sites in Libya. Most crucial was Dr Walda’s digital mapping work on the location of ancient sites, and thus heritage-rich areas. This data was translated into an accessible form and passed on to NATO, as well as the British Ministry of Defence, in order to help them to minimise damage to these sites during the conflict.

As a direct result of their data, damage to Libyan heritage was reduced. King’s College London’s role in this protection of Libya’s archaeology was praised by senior figures at Blue Shield, who said that NATO’s ‘no strike list’ ‘would not have been possible’ without the university’s involvement. Subsequent to the conflict, Dr Walda played a key part in reporting on damage to heritage on the ground.

Finally, in April 2012, Dr Wootton and Dr Walda were able to resume their original work with the Libyan Department of Antiquities. They relayed their expertise on mosaic conservation to many local specialists, from Libyan government officials to site controllers and technicians, in a number of workshops and lectures. As a result, changes in conservation practice are already taking place, benefiting the Libyan people, but also the cultural community as a whole.

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