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Italian officials have recently agreed to release two million euros in funding from the European Union for the purposes of maintenance at the World Heritage site of Pompeii, where large amounts of rainfall have been said to have caused the collapse of several of the ancient Roman walls.

With all the talk in recent years of ‘extreme weather’ shifts and conditions, I tend to wonder what could happen in the future to sites like Pompeii, Herculaneum or other historic locations in other countries, particularly if austerity crises continue into the future and funding dwindles. When one thinks of great historic monuments in the distant past lost to time and ruin – the Library of Alexandria, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, to name just a few famous examples from antiquity – one can only lament and wonder.

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I sincerely doubt the likes of Pompeii would be left to ruin in even the most dire times, but then natural disasters and acts of God could do great damage at any time (in Pompeii’s case that would be terribly ironic). But it does highlight the issue of important cultural and historic sites being at risk from certain threats, something that has often been the case.

There are various sources of threat to great cultural sites, including modern development projects, armed conflicts, insufficient management or changes in the legal protective status of the property in question. In the case of delicate cultural sites, gradual changes due to geology, climate or environment also present potential dangers, especially if combined with a lack of skilled experts in the field, which is often the case as many great heritage sites are located in poor or underdeveloped nations.

In some developing economies where rapid economic transformation might be occurring, the drive towards modernization often supercedes the preservation of historic and even natural heritage, the long-term benefits of cultural heritage sometimes gaged against opportunities for short-term domestic economic development. In many cases the result is that ancient sites and buildings are forced to make way for modern infrastructure, with archaeological sites neglected or surrounded by poorly planned commercial developments.

In other, more dramatic instances governments can collapse and order can be lost, leading to vandalism or looting. Something of this sort occurred in Iraq after the Western invasion, with the Baghdad Museum being looted for its priceless Mesopatamian, Sumerian and other antiquities, and something similar was close to happening in Cairo during the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, though thankfully the Egytpian antiquities were protected. Shifts in religious or political climate can also threaten heritage sites, as witnessed in Bamyan in Afghanistan in 2001 when the Taliban utterly demolished extraordinary, ancient Buddhist monuments out of pure religious intolerance.

The 11th-century minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest and most important Islamic buildings, was destroyed by shellfire in the Syrian Civil War that is still ongoing. Current historical sites listed as endangered by UNESCO include the Ancient City of Aleppo, along with the ancient cities of Damascus and Bosra, all similarly threatened by the war in Syria. Also on that broader list are the ancient Ashur in Iraq, along with Timbuktu and other sites in Mali. And numerous others all over the world. Warfare and unrest is one of the major threats to important sites. We can only hope that such sites as Pompeii and other monuments to humanity’s complex, colourful past are successfully preserved for yet centuries to come.

And yet even saying this, archaeologists are discovering new sites and relics all the time to augment our preservation of the past for present and future generations…

Cleopatra, Claudius, and the Wonders of Underwater Archaeology…

Just this year, in Luxor, Egypt, the tomb of a governent official, Maayi, from Egypt’s 18th dynasty was discovered by accident, while also in Luxor an alabaster statue of Princess Iset was unearthed at the temple of Amenhotep III (her father), who ruled during the same period.

So one wonders what incredible finds, with what fascinating historical connections, are still waiting out there somewhere to be happened upon by some fortunate archaeological team. One known fertile site that endlessly fascinates me is just off the historic Egyptian port city of Alexandria, where the ruins of Queen Cleopatra’s palace and temple complex are sunken.

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Since early in the 1990s, topographical surveys have allowed teams led by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio to overcome the harbor’s extremely poor visibility and excavate below the seabed, exploring the submerged ruins of the palace and temple complexes from which the legendary Cleopatra ruled, and swimming around heaps of limestone blocks plunged into the sea by tsunamis and earthquakes over 1,600 years ago (approximately 4 centuries after Cleopatra’s reign). They have been discovering everything from coins and everyday objects to colossal granite statues of Egypt’s rulers and sunken temples dedicated to their gods.

The deep-sea dives have taken Goddio and his team to some of the key scenes in the dramatic lives of Cleopatra and some of those historically associated with her life; including a giant stone head believed to depict Ceasarion, Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, and a sphinx believed to represent her father Ptolemy XII.

Most fascinating of all to me, Goddio’s team also found the ‘Timonium’, built for Mark Antony after his fateful defeat at Actium as a refuge where he could retreat from the world – though he is thought to have commited his suicide before the site was completed.

A site like this, buried beneath the sea, is just endlessly fascinating. The underwater archaeology in Alexandria is in fact so fascinating that it warrants its own blog-posts, which is something I might do here soon. Something that made me feel the same way when I first starting looking at images from it was the Nymphaeum of the Roman Emperor Claudius. The nymphaeum was a large-basined fountain surrounded by statues of mythological figures and gods, part of a large bath complex still visible, as are the ancient roads and pavements leading to it… all of it underwater. It’s just mesmerising.

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The site is part of the larger underwater Archaeological Park of Baiae in Italy, Baiae being regarded the Las Vegas of Ancient Rome, where the wealthy and famous had their lavish villas and summer homes, including Julius Caesar and the Emperor Nero.

God, I wish I’d been an archaeologist instead of a freelance, time-travelling, Nerf-Herding, swashbuckling Mutant layabout.

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