Preserving Hominid Footprints in Tanzania

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The Getty Conservation Institute and the government of Tanzania are collaborating on a project to conserve the 3.6-million-year-old hominid tracks at the site of Laetoli in northwestern Tanzania. The fossil footprint trail, preserved in volcanic ash, provides the earliest definitive evidence of man's ancestors walking upright and is considered one of the most important discoveries in the study of human evolution. The footprints have immense scientific and cultural significance as the earliest mark left by humankind on the environment.

"The Laetoli trackway's value goes beyond interest to the scientific community and easily captures the public imagination," said Martha Demas, who, along with Neville Agnew, is leading the project for the Institute. "The footprints have universal appeal for humanity inasmuch as we are able to identify—directly and immediately—with the similarities in our early ancestors' appearance."

The 27-meter trackway, consisting of two parallel trails of footprints, was first uncovered by Dr. Mary Leakey in 1977, not far from Olduvai Gorge, where she and her husband Louis made their famous discovery of fossil hominid remains in association with stone tools. The Laetoli trackway is approximately a million years older than the deposits at Olduvai, and the absence of any stone tool industry at this early date provides clear evidence that bipedalism preceded tool making.

Following its excavation and documentation, the Laetoli site was reburied as a protective measure. But since then it has undergone deterioration and damage due to its remoteness, the growth of trees on the trackway, and natural erosion. An assessment of the trackway's condition was undertaken by a joint Tanzanian-GCI team in 1993. Re-excavation of a 3-by-3 meter area revealed the intrusion of acacia tree roots, which have caused disruption of the tuff (hardened volcanic ash) layer, and damage to individual footprints. The team also observed that sand and gravel from the reburial fill had become embedded in the rather soft tuff and that the site was suffering from surface erosion. As a result of this campaign, the need to kill the trees causing the damage and to stabilize the site against erosion were identified as priority actions.

In June 1994 an agreement formalizing the project was signed in Dar es Salaam. In August 1994 a team of Tanzanian and Getty Conservation Institute experts completed a two-and-a-half-week campaign that focused on killing the acacia trees, mapping the site, and undertaking stabilization measures such as rainwater diversion to reduce erosion.

The project's first full-scale conservation and documentation campaign will be undertaken in 1995 by an international team of archaeologists, conservators, scientific photographers, and other specialists, including scientists from Tanzania. The team will re-excavate half of the trackway, remove tree roots, and stabilize the fossil surface. Conservation of the remainder of the trackway should be completed in 1996.

The site, in a remote area without easy access, is not amenable to public display. The trackway will therefore be reburied to ensure its long-term survival. However, the Laetoli exhibit at the Olduvai Museum will be enhanced using casts of the trackway and other didactic material produced by the project team.

Conservation of Rock Art in Baja California

In April 1994 the Institute launched the first field campaign of its Special Project on rock art conservation at the cave of El Ratón in Baja California. The outstanding nature of the prehistoric paintings in a number of caves in the Sierra de San Francisco, in the center of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, has recently been more widely acknowledged with their inclusion in UNESCO's World Heritage List.

The project aims to record and document the condition of the paintings at El Ratón and to monitor their deterioration through natural and human causes. A further important objective is to work with the local authorities and inhabitants to design a management plan for these sites, which are now receiving an increasing number of visitors. In the three-week campaign in 1994, the GCI team, directed by Nicholas Stanley Price, Deputy Director of the Institute's Training Program, concentrated on basic documentation of the site and its paintings. In addition to standard recording and survey techniques, photogrammetry was used by a team from Heritage Recording Services in Canada to map the very difficult topography of the El Ratón site and its paintings.

With the aim of providing training opportunities for Latin America, the team includes four participants from Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico with backgrounds and experience in conservation or in rock art studies. The project is organized jointly with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) of Mexico, the Governor of the State of Baja California Sur, and Amigos de Sudcalifornia, a nonprofit conservation association in Baja California.

Four additional field campaigns are planned.

Conservation Center in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

The Getty Conservation Institute is joining with the Russian Academy of Sciences and the city of St. Petersburg to create the St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation, the first center for conservation in the region. The center's development follows five years of collaboration between the Institute and St. Petersburg's museums and libraries.

St. Petersburg is home to about 80 museums, 41 universities, 2,900 libraries, and over 8,000 historic buildings—an ensemble of cultural and historical wealth so extraordinary that UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site. Today this vast cultural heritage is threatened by a lack of resources and long-term preservation problems, despite the committed efforts of its professional scientists, museum and library personnel, architects, and cultural authorities who have been working in isolation throughout most of the 20th century.

The International Center for Preservation will address the problems of protecting the city's and the region's cultural heritage from disintegration and destruction. Incorporated in the United States and registered in Russia as a nonprofit charitable organization, the Center will conduct training, information exchange, and research in preservation and promote an awareness of the need for conservation. Its mission will be to institute a permanent infrastructure for training and interdisciplinary research so that preservationists throughout the former Soviet Union can collaborate with their colleagues nationally and internationally to develop, disseminate, and apply new approaches to conservation problems.

The city of St. Petersburg, through the Mayor's Office, is providing space to house the Center, while the Russian Academy of Sciences is supplying scientific and organizational expertise. The Getty Conservation Institute is offering organizational assistance at the international level, supporting pilot programs, and working to attract involvement from other organizations.