Rust Family Foundation: Archaeology Grants Program

Seeking Collaboration: A Summit for Projects Collecting Cultural Heritage Data in Syria and Conflict Zones


Sponsors: American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR); Dr. Andrew Vaughn, Executive Director;  Archaeological Institute of America (AIA); Ann Benbow, Executive Director

Importance of the Project:
Protection of cultural heritage in Syria and other zones of conflict is, and will continue to be, an urgent matter. Every day, sites and buildings in Syria and other conflict areas are being damaged or destroyed by conflict, looting, and terrorism. Dozens of non-profit organizations and non-governmental organizations have responded to this crisis, and some of them have received significant funding from European countries, Canada, UNESCO, and the United States. Just in the latter half of 2015, cultural heritage conferences held at the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Asia Society have called for all working on this problem to find ways to achieve both greater collaboration and a division of labor. The goal of this Summit was to move projects closer to achieving these aims.

Participating Organizations

Organizations sending representatives to the Summit included: AIA; the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); The Antiquities Coalition; ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives; Computational Research of the Ancient Near East (CRANE) at the University of Toronto; CyArk; Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa (EAMENA) at Oxford University; The Getty Conservation Institute (GCI); International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS); Manar al-Athar; National Science Foundation (NSF); The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Penn Cultural Heritage Center; Shirin; the Smithsonian Institution; The Syrian Heritage Archive Project (a joint project of the German Archaeological Institute and the Museum for Islamic Art, Berlin); The Day After Project; The Past For Sale Initiative at The University of Chicago; UNESCO; UNOSAT; United Nations Security Council; U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield; the World Monuments Fund (WMF); and Yale University.


2015 Funded Project

On December 10-11, 2015, representatives from 19 international groups involved in protecting the cultural heritage of Syria and other zones of conflict met in Washington, DC to identify ways in which they could collaborate to maximize their efforts. This meeting was co-organized by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), (Dr. Andrew Vaughn, 
Executive Director), and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), (Dr. Ann Benbow, Executive Director). The Summit was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which provided grant monies, meeting space, and logistical support; the Rust Family Foundation which provided travel grants for foreign participants; the National Geographic Society (NGS), which provided meeting space and logistical support; and the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), which sponsored the event’s group dinner.

Fig.1: Regional map of Syria and Iraq with several major sites

Summit Format

The first day of the Summit was a closed session in which participants met in both large group and breakout sessions to describe their projects, discuss principles of collaboration, and identify s
pecific ways in which they could work together. The second day, participants met to finalize discussions from the day before, agree on the principles of collaboration, and discuss next steps for the initiative. This session was followed by a panel of representatives from grant-making organizations, each of whom described the type of support available for cultural heritage protection initiatives.

This closed morning session was followed by a public event at NGS, which attracted approximately 150 attendees, and included welcomes by Dr. Susan Ackerman, President of ASOR. and Mr. Gary Knell, Chief Executive Officer of NGS. Mr. Phillipp Ackermann, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany announced a new memorandum of understanding (MoU) between ASOR and the cultural heritage projects led by the German Archaeological Institute and the Museum for Islamic Art, Berlin.

The announcement was followed by remarks from Mr. Mark Taplin, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and finally from Dr. William Adams, Chairman of NEH.  Christopher Thornton, Senior Director, Cultural Heritage Initiative, NGS hosted a lightning round for representatives of the 19 groups. Each group had three minutes to describe its project and point out possible areas of collaboration. The lightning round was followed by reflections and observations from three Syrian archaeologists attending the Summit. The session was video- recorded and will be available on the web sites of ASOR and the AIA.

Summit Outcomes

A. Principles of Collaboration for Syrian Cultural Heritage Projects

Representatives of the organizations attending the conference unanimously agreed to abide by a set of principles that included (in summary): (1) To work with Syrians to protect and preserve their cultural heritage, which is the shared heritage of all humankind. (2) to active dialogue that will lead to a series of collaborative initiatives in order to maximize our collective effort; (3) to share explanations of our projects with the aim of fostering better coordination of efforts and better division of labor; (4) to be vigilant and proactive in our work by exploring practical activities that will facilitate sharing and maximizing impact such as memoranda of understanding (MoUs); secure websites to share ideas and updates; shared digital platforms and the use of common data standards; a secure list-serve covering topics of importance to our experts; calendars of events and symposia on related topics, and fundraising for collaborative projects; (5) To facilitate the above by regular communication updates and sharing progress publicly, as appropriate.

B. Breakout Group Discussion Summary

Groups in the breakout sessions made a number of suggestions which are summarized below:
1. As a practical step toward collaboration, groups suggested the establishment of a secure web site with:
•    Contact information for participants.
•    Project grid to help to identify areas where projects overlap.
•    Database of all projects working in this area.
•    Database of rules and regulations controlling data sharing.
•    Forum for exchange of ideas.
•    Calendar of opportunities to meet and promote projects.
2. Participants also agreed to look actively for such collaborative opportunities as:
•    Sharing data, as safe and appropriate.
•    Viewing and vetting others’ data.
•    Using the same data management platform and the same standards for data collection.
•    Sharing best practices.
•    Sharing experts.
•    Providing training in data standards.
•    Helping the people of Syria and other conflict zones who work on the ground.
•    Developing models that protect cultural heritage in any conflict zones.
3. Groups recognized the need to prioritize. These were some key questions that arose:
•    How can project data help law enforcement to stop trafficking in illicit antiquities?
•    How can our projects help the people in Syria and other conflict zones who are working on the ground?
•    What areas are most at risk for attack and destruction? How can our projects help to protect these areas?
4. Finally, groups agreed that it was important to let others in the world know about their work. Some ideas for this included:
•    Conference presentations and workshops
•    Articles
•    Promote on web sites and social media
•    Dispatches section in Archaeology Magazine (AIA)

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