By Neville Agnew

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and biologist Edward O. Wilson speculates in his book In Search of Nature that we are genetically predisposed to think only one or two generations into the future. Always an intellectual adventurer, Wilson, in his latest book, Consilience, strives to make a case for the fundamental unity of all intellectual disciplines. The essence of these two ideas—overcoming our blindness to the needs of generations yet to come, and a holistic approach to how we should meet these obligations to the future—increasingly underlies conservation thinking. Conservation is a futuristic activity vested in the belief that we today, who have the power to safeguard or degrade what is of value to society, should be good ancestors for future generations.

It is this philosophy that has prompted the Getty's current partnership with organizations from around the world to present integrated conservation approaches at the Fifth World Archaeological Congress (WAC-5) in June in Washington, D.C. The congress—a worldwide organization of practicing archaeologists—holds meetings every four years in a different part of the world. Collaborating with the organizers of WAC-5 are the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as the Getty Conservation Institute. The fifth congress is the first to be held in North America—and the first to include a major theme running throughout the congress on the conservation of archaeological sites and materials.

A Limited Resource

detail of burial complex

Among all the categories of cultural heritage under threat, the archaeological resource—artifacts and the sites from which they came—is a repository and storehouse of information that is increasingly in jeopardy. Since time immemorial, sites have been exploited for treasure, looted for objects, destroyed out of idle curiosity, and mined for raw building materials. So great are the remains of the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, China, and the Americas as to seem, like the resources of the oceans, inexhaustible. Perhaps this notion is encouraged by spectacular discoveries that continue to be made—for example, in the KV5 site in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, the Xi'an terra-cotta warriors in China, and many others.

Yet there are many other instances of apparently inexhaustible resources being depleted. The oceans are showing evidence of severe depletion and pollution, our own gaseous "ocean"—the atmosphere—is stressed by carbon dioxide and pollutants, and the forests continue to fall. Is archaeological heritage to be any different? We do not know how many and what kinds of sites remain to be discovered. In the fields of the environment and ecology, husbandry of resources is the catchword. We should apply the concepts and methods of these fields more thoroughly to preserve the archaeological heritage, for lost sites, like extinct species, can never be regained.

Humankind's curiosity about its own past gave rise to archaeology as a discipline. Thought of as the great "book" of the past, the archaeological record is being consumed at an accelerating pace. Multiple new forces now converge to degrade or destroy that record—development, mass tourism, agriculture, aggressive archaeological excavation, war, and looting for valuables. Like any ancient document, the archaeological record is fragile. It should be read and handled with extreme care because all damage is ultimately irreversible.

The word conservation means different things to different people. In its broadest meaning, it refers to care of the cultural and natural heritage through assessment of the values of the resource, diagnosis of causes of damage, research and testing to find remedies, implementation, planning and management, and monitoring and maintenance to ensure that the destructive trajectory does not begin anew. It is in the areas of planning, assessment, management, and decision making that conservation has developed in recent decades. In order to address the complexity of heritage conservation, organizations such as the GCI employ staff trained in the scientific and technological disciplines of conservation, chemistry, physics, engineering, and computing, as well as the disciplines of archaeology, architecture, geography, planning, management, and art history. All of these disciplines working in an integrated way are required to meet the challenges posed by the many adverse factors that assail the artistic and cultural heritage in museums and outdoor sites in widely different climatic and geographic regions.

Conservation at WAC-5

detail wall painting

When the GCI was invited by the academic chair of WAC-5 to organize sessions on conservation throughout the congress, an unparalleled opportunity presented itself. Here was an invitation to reach out to the archaeology profession and to communicate a message of holistic conservation, stressing the partnership role that conservation, broadly defined, can play in archaeology, particularly if brought into the process from the beginning. The GCI decided, with participation of staff members from the Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, to seek a coalition of partner institutions (see below) from around the world to demonstrate and present to the archaeological community the case for conservation's role in archaeology.

The conservation sessions will run each day of the congress. There will be three plenary addresses by eminent archaeologists who support conservation of archaeological heritage, with a total of 12 panel sessions of between 90 minutes to two hours each. As much as possible, professional archaeologists will present the case for conservation by speaking from their own knowledge and experience.

The themes of the conservation sessions are intended to address most of the major issues facing the survival of the archaeological heritage today. Among these are: the threats to archaeological World Heritage Sites; the increasing (and appropriately so) demands of stakeholders for a voice in decision making about the care and use of sites and artifacts; the challenges facing the conservation of archaeological collections; mass tourism to iconic sites and the sites' exploitation for economic benefit; technical responses to sites at risk—how one assesses the best types of intervention, from sheltering a site to its reburial; innovative approaches to site preservation (both pros and cons), from private acquisition of a site to protect it, to privatization of national heritage (a step that has been greeted by some with outrage); meeting the challenges of rapid economic growth in China today; and the management of archaeological sites and rock art in the southern African subcontinent. Descriptions of these and other subthemes are posted on the WAC-5 Web site (

Rather than present papers or case studies at WAC-5, the representatives of the partnering organizations with the GCI are forming panels—each addressing a particular topic—with five to six well-known professionals presenting the issues and entering into dialogue with the audience. Each topic will be introduced by short presentations to define the issues. After the topic is elaborated upon in responses by two other panelists, the discussion will be opened up to the audience. The intention is to publish the presentations and summaries of the discussions in the One World Archaeology series as the permanent record of the sessions.

A Partnership for Preservation

Acropolis, GreeceEnlarge
Castilla - Maya site of Tulum

It is hoped that the conservation presentations at WAC-5 will help undo the artificial fragmentation between archaeologists and conservation professionals—two groups that the coalition of conservation partners for this initiative regard as natural partners. Like so many other disciplines, they have tended to go their own way as specialization became the rule. If this separation is reversed, meshing of the two will work powerfully to secure the archaeological record for the future, while allowing its study and appropriate current use for the benefit of society.

In addition to increasing awareness among archaeologists of the critical role conservation should play in archaeological practice, other benefits will derive from this initiative. For the first time, a coalition of leading conservation organizations is coming together to present a unified viewpoint. This step itself will strengthen the conservation field. Further, by drawing panelists for the sessions—between 40 and 50 specialists from many different disciplines, all with knowledge and experience in integrated approaches to conservation—the initiative will convey the message that conservation and archaeology are on an intellectual par. The old view of the conservator's role at an excavation site of gluing together pot shards is obsolete and should be replaced by one of a conservation- archaeology partnership that will more effectively safeguard the archaeological heritage that both professions wish to preserve for the future.

Neville Agnew is principal project specialist with the GCI's Field Projects department.

WAC-5 Partners

The organizations working with the GCI on the WAC-5 conservation sessions include:

American Institute for Conservation

Australia ICOMOS

English Heritage


Institute of Archaeology, University College London

Council of National Monuments of Chile

South African Heritage Resources Agency

State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China


World Heritage Center of UNESCO

World Monuments Fund

World Tourism Organization

Additionally, two delegates from Afghanistan—one from the National Museum in Kabul and the other from the Afghanistan Institute of Archaeology—have been invited, in collaboration with Wellesley College and New York University, to present the enormous problems they face in the aftermath of years of war and destruction.