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The story so far: The history of Ancient Sabratha
Sabratha is one of the major centres of Tripolitania (west of Libya). It was founded as a Punic outpost, as an emporium and developed monumentally in the Roman and Byzantine periods. It continued to be occupied in the early Islamic period or at least until the 10th century.
The site has been extensively excavated, with the first recorded excavations beginning during the Italian colonial period, directed by Renato Bartoccini and Giacomo Guidi in 1928.
Among the most impressive monuments of the site, located to the east of the ancient city, is the theatre, which was most likely built between the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century (Caputo 1959). The monument was excavated (non-stratigraphically) in 1928 by Guidi, The standing scaena frons results from a deep restoration, using original stones, operated during the Italian colonial period. The anastylosis of the theatre was initiated by Guidi in 1934-1936, and after his death completed by Caputo (1936-1937). The structure is impressive and among the best preserved in the Roman world. Part of the frons scene was elevated using reused materials found surrounding the site. From 1934 to 1936 they worked specifically to collect the majority of remains of the original blocks and pieces of decoration of the scaena frons of the theatre. Specific attention was paid in the selection of the materials to be used to integrate the missing parts, as they wanted them to be clearly visible (intentionally they did not integrate them to the decoration and left them visible (for instance they used smaller blocks and they left them unworked). The restoration also extended to the cavea, but here the new blocks are impossible to distinguish from the old ones.
Reasons for such a deep intervention of restoration were:
The plan to utilise the theatre for events;
The desire by the governor of Libya, Italo Balbo, to reinstate the monumentality of the Roman Empire through building (he saw the reconstruction in Gypsum models at the exhibition which took place in Tripoli in 1933).
The standing scaena frons develops on three levels, with different types of orders and niches. It also preserves the reliefs decorating the podium of the stage. The structure is impressive and among the best preserved in the Roman world. Part of the frons scene was elevated using reused materials found surrounding the site. From 1934 to 1936 they worked specifically to collect the majority of remains of the original blocks and pieces of decoration of the scaena frons of the theatre. Specific attention was paid in the selection of the materials to be used to integrate the missing parts, as they wanted them to be clearly visible (intentionally they did not integrate them to the decoration and left them visible (for instance they used smaller blocks and they left them unworked). The restoration also extended to the cavea, but here the new blocks are impossible to distinguish from the old ones.
The site was awarded World Heritage status in 1982 however since 2016 it has been placed on the list of World Heritage sites in Danger. This danger list is designed to inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List. The purpose of the ‘danger list’ is to publicise threats to World Heritage Sites in the hope to encourage and galvanise corrective action.
The site is managed by the Department of Antiquities (DOA) of Libya who are a government body made up of heritage professionals who manage and maintain archaeological and heritage sites throughout Libya.
Current condition of the site: World Heritage in Danger
In September and October of 2016, the ancient city of Sabratha was damaged by a number of armed conflicts. The site was also used as stopping point for migrants before being transferred to the southern coasts of Italy. The control of this traffic and political upheaval saw the site at the centre of armed conflict, with an entire part of the city the place of a fierce battle. Whilst in some areas the shooting did not have a major impact, the theatre was used as shield, and therefore was heavily affected by the crossfire.
In 2018 initial evaluations of the impact of the bullets were conducted within the Training in Action Project, in collaboration with Dr Lisa Mol, University of West England (UWE) and HitC PI, expert on the impact of crossfire on stones. An initial evaluation of the deteriorated parts of the site was conducted. Unfortunately since this initial assessment it has been too dangerous to access the site and therefore no further research has been conducted. In order to support the restoration process of this globally significant site a more in depth analysis of the damage has been deemed necessary.
New phase of research and survey: Looking to the future
Prior to any restoration work on primarily the theatre and several other key structural elements of the ancient city, further archaeological research and survey is required. This additional survey work is fundamental to understanding not only the surface damage to the monument but any underlying concerns as well. Before any restoration work can be carried it is essential to evaluate the destruction caused by each impact on the monument and assess if this damage is compromising the stability of the monument theatre as a whole,e. It is essential this work is done now to avoid its longer term degradation and deterioration of the monument. This new phase of work will determine surface and subsurface structural strength loss associated with ballistic and small missile impacts. Documenting these damages is essential in order to proceed with the restoration and to form a clear understanding of the different possible interventions and their long-term ramifications. This will also offer the opportunity to evaluate the structural stability of the theatre, since many years have passed since the restoration.
The work is conducted in collaboration with the DOA of Libya and funded by Gerda Henkel Stiftung Patrimonies. The project is directed by Professor Anna Leone, Durham University and Dr Lisa Mol, UWE, supported by Oscar Gilbert (UWE) and Patricia Voke (Durham University – Wessex Archaeology). Due to the current travel restrictions and global challenges the project is developed by team members in the UK providing remote training and technical support for the members of the DOA - Libya carrying out the survey and data collection. This intervention is timely as the situation in Libya has now improved, the site is accessible and secure and and it is hoped that restoration of the monuments will happen in due course. However prior to the restoration some more detailed recording and evaluation need to be conducted, in order to fully understand the situation, beyond the clear damage on the surface of the monument.
The project aims are as follows:
Undertake detailed photogrammetry of the theatre and other structures with a drone, creating creation of 3D models, using archival data mapping, archival data and integrate new data with archival material all the information into a GIS data-base, to manage the next steps of the recording and analysis
Complete an evaluation of the size and the type of damage done by each individual bullet and a measurement of the impact crater
Sampling and analysis of the stones to evaluate the effective impact. This includes mapping of likely subsurface damage based on stone type, condition, calibre of impact and angle of impact, and associated likely deterioration curves
Mapping will be collated using GIS, which will serve as digital tool to continue the monitoring of the theatre as well as plan the future work
Mapping of the damage spread, severity and likely direction of damaging projectiles using the photogrammetry model imported into GIS.
Using the 3D model and the elevations to carry out a structural evaluation of the monument
Conservation and restoration of Sabratha: Sustainability and resilience
The culmination of this project is essential for the forthcoming restoration work at the site. Without understanding the internal and external damage to the site further accelerated deterioration of the monuments is likely. Having a scientifically-informed analysis and rich documentation is crucial for sustainable restoration. It is hoped that the following successful restorations of the theatre and other monuments within the city that have been affected by the impact of military conflict can be restored and protected. It is anticipated that this model of scientific research prior to restoration can be replicated at other World Heritage Sites throughout the world. Numerous archaeological sites have been significantly affected by high levels of instability in recent years. Our ultimate aim is that by providing support and training to assist the DOA to carry out positive action at Sabratha this model can be replicated at other World Heritage Sites. Our passion is to help protect and sustain these globally significant heritage sites for the future.