Vol 4 N° 3 [July–September 2004]



p 2 - The red tide

p 8 - A science policy for Lebanon
p 9 - Kit helps kids discover drylands
p 9 - Humans bigger danger for coral reefs than tsunami
p 10 - UNESCO Chair in Earth sciences for Nigeria
p 11- Federation of African Societies of Chemistry founded
p 12 - UNESCO condems terror campaign against Iraqi academics
p 12 - Pacific tsunami warning system put to the test
p 13 - African World Heritage Fund launched

p 14 - Hans van Ginkel presents a think-tank within the United Nations

p 17 - Using the sun to quench their thirst
p 19 - Saviours from space for Siberia's frozen tombs

p 24 - Diary
p 24 - New releases

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Saving lost civilizations

Ask people to name UNESCO's greatest triumph in its 60 years of existence and how many would say, 'Abu Simbel'? In the late 1950s, the plight of these 3000-year old temples captured the public imagination. Abu Simbel and 22 other Nubian temples and tombs were in danger of disappearing beneath the waters of Lake Nasser, a reservoir created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The Governments of Egypt and Sudan appealed to UNESCO for help. UNESCO responded by organizing the most vast international campaign ever to safeguard archaeological heritage.

Moving the Nubian temples would demand great ingenuity. The beautifully sculpted temples had to be cut into stone blocks and numbered prior to being transported and reassembled, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle: 37 000 blocks for the Philae temples alone.

Some of the sandstone at Abu Simbel was so friable that it had to be injected with synthetic resin to prevent it from crumbling under the saw. The cliff in which Abu Simbel was niched had to be removed and an artificial hillside constructed 180 m back from the original site on higher ground. Abu Simbel was still being dismantled when the waters began rising, sending engineers scuttling to erect a protective dam after an emergency geological survey.

The safeguard of the Nubian temples was a cultural triumph but equally a triumph of science and engineering. This was neither the first, nor the last, time that scientists and engineers had helped to preserve the memory of lost civilizations.

Methods have evolved, of course, since the 1960s. The development of satellite imagery, for instance, combined with fair use clauses permitting wide use of the technology, has revolutionized such diverse fields as meteorology, ecology, physical oceanography and ... archaeology.

UNESCO is currently using space technologies to help save another archaeological treasure, the frozen tombs of Siberia. These tombs offer rare insights into the lost Scythian culture. Preserved in permafrost for 2500 years, the tombs lie scattered across the Altai Mountains straddling China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia. They contain frozen bodies in such a remarkable state of conservation that even the tattoos on their skin are often intact.

In this issue, we follow the project's progress since the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) joined UNESCO and the European Space Agency in their Open Initiative to protect natural and cultural sites using space technologies. NASA is providing the University of Ghent in Belgium with the satellite imagery it needs to produce the first comprehensive map of the tombs and terrain.

As with Abu Simbel, the scientists are engaged in a race against time. Climate change is thawing the ground which has protected the tombs for so long. The conservationists from the four countries concerned need to know how fast the Altai's glaciers are retreating to devise an effective strategy for saving the tombs. By monitoring climate change in the Altai, the project will also be providing them with these answers.

W. Erdelen
Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences


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