Dig It

04.23.1410:44 AM ET

Women of Monumental Importance

Female archaeologists and scholars are on the front lines in the fight to save precious ancient sites, cultures, and communities. Meet some of the most exciting innovators.

Amelia Edwards was the first known archaeology travel writer. After travelling the Nile in 1873-74, she returned to England, wrote down her impressions and published them, complete with her own illustrations, as A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. The book became an instant bestseller. 

Because Edwards had seen first-hand how tourism and urban development could damage ancient sites and monuments, she thereafter became a tireless advocate for their protection, co-founding the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Egypt Exploration Society) in 1882, and writing extensively on the subject. 

More than a century and a half later, the fight to preserve and protect archaeological sites and historical landmarks has only intensified all across the globe, as countless communities struggle to protect their monuments and ancient cities at risk. 

Saving cultural heritage is the primary mission of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), now in its second decade. Keenly aware that many important sites are threatened by a variety of factors that include environmental degradation, neglect, looting, mismanagement, uncontrolled development, and violent conflict, the Palo-Alto based NGO works to protect and preserve some of the world’s most important cultural heritage sites. 

During Amelia Edward’s time, women sometimes masked their own identity on assignment. She would no doubt approve of GHF’s mission today. She would also be happy to know just how many women have become involved in the battle, many of them working under challenging conditions in the pursuit of cultural preservation.   

To honuor those women and the cause for which they labour, GHF offers a closer look at some of today’s “monuments women” who dedicate their lives to the discovery, understanding, and protection of cultural threads that connect us all. 

PINGYAO, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 21: (CHINA OUT) Tourists visit the Mingqing Street on September 21, 2008 in Pingyao of Shanxi Province, China. Pingyao, with a history of over 2,700 years, is a well-preserved ancient city in China renowned for its old city wall and typical residences. It is listed on UNESCO's "World Heritage List". During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Pingyao was a financial center in northern China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
Tourists visit the Mingqing Street in Pingyao of Shanxi Province, China. (China Photos/Getty)

Kuanghan Li
Managing an entire ancient city is no ordinary responsibility. So Kuanghan Li got more than she bargained for when she joined GHF in 2008 as the manager of its China Heritage Program and was charged with preserving Pingyao Ancient City. 

One of the oldest and last intact ancient walled cities, Pingyao Ancient City served as China’s first banking capital during the Xia Dynasty (2070—1600 BCE). To protect China’s ancient treasures without impeding new development, Han works closely with GHF’s partners, which include Shanghai Tongji University, Shanxi Provincial Government–Department of Construction, UNESCO Beijing, Shanzi Urban Planning Society, and Pingyao County People’s Government.

Overseeing GHF’s Pingyao Cultural Heritage Development Program, Han supervises authentic restorations of historic courtyard buildings. She also drafts and implements plans to revitalize traditional arts by establishing new artisan complexes with the Ancient City’s communities. And she delivers training and education on conservation concepts and techniques to local partners responsible for the sustainable preservation of the ancient city. For its successful management of this program, GHF received the Global Vision Award for Preservation from Travel & Leisure in 2012. 

After the first model historic courtyard in Pingyao’s history was completed through a public-private partnership, GHF was given the opportunity to lead the conservation and community development of an entire historic streetscape. The Fanjia Jie Historic District is a model that will be adopted not only across the entire ancient city of Pingyao but also across Shanxi Province, where historic district protection and development is a prevailing challenge. 

In addition to Pingyao Ancient City, Han manages a unique cultural landscapes project in Guizhou, one of China’s poorest regions but one that also possesses a wealth of natural and cultural resources. Her challenge there is to keep historic vernacular landscapes from vanishing amid new development and to revive traditional crafts and centuries-old customs. 

Implementing GHF’s five-year master plan for Guizhou, Han oversees restoration and interpretation efforts in two villages, Dali and Heshui. The master plan includes conservation of the area’s many historic structures, including drum towers, opera stages, covered bridges, wooden barns, and water-powered paper workshops that still produce hand-made paper in a similar fashion since the mid-Ming Dynasty.

What distinguishes the Guizhou project is the leadership of young Chinese pioneers who are working with Han, notably the China Social Entrepreneur Foundation (You-Cheng), which helps traditional silversmiths in Dali and papermakers in Heshui to develop business and marketing plans for their crafts with lead investment by UNESCO Beijing. 

Han recently appeared in the video China Untapped, broadcast by International Channel Shanghai, which featured the architecture and cultural heritage of Dali Village. 

Dr. Emma Cunliffe
Emma’s report, “Damage to the Soul: Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Conflict,” was researched and written during peacetime. However, upon its release in 2011, it instantly became a reliable source for thousands of journalists seeking information about the state of Syria’s cultural heritage sites.

While completing her doctorate at Durham University in the U.K., Emma focused on the use of satellite imagery to examine and analyse the threats and impacts to archaeological sites in Syria. Her post-graduate work was undertaken with GHF and the Durham University Fragile Crescent Project, who surveyed the small sites. Once published, this work will promote effective use and better targeting of the limited resources available, prevent further damage, and assist in the preservation of Near East archaeology.

The increasing damage to archaeological sites is of particular issue in the Near East where rapid modernization continues to dramatically change the landscape even while threats to archaeological resources increase. Ancient sites and relict landscapes have been particularly well preserved here, but the rate of anthropogenic damage is increasing markedly. Many sites are unrecorded or only quickly surveyed, and the scale and extent of damage is anecdotal and hard to assess.

Emma’s thesis incorporates a series of satellite images that illustrate the changes to archaeological sites in selected case-study areas in Syria; her research analysed comparative satellite imagery of Syria to remotely monitor and map modern threats to sites and features, quantifying the causes, types, and extent of the damage. The results of her work will be applied to understanding the wider Middle Eastern region and various pressures.

Emma also aims to demonstrate the potential of low-cost and free satellite imagery that allows us to scan and monitor archaeology sites from anywhere in the world, making information and education accessible at a click. This work is essential, but the cost of such custom-ordered imagery has been a challenge for many organizations to date.

The case study areas are Tell Beydar in the Upper Khabur Basin, and the region south of Carchemish by the Euphrates, an historic site excavated by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in the early 20th century. In total, Emma has examined 161 sites, first on low-cost Corona imagery from the ’60s, showing sites at the advent of the landscape change, and then on SPOT, DigitalGlobe, and Geoeye imagery from the last decade, available through Google Earth. The sites were surveyed as part of Durham University’s Fragile Crescent Project, and the survey records used to inform the analysis. 

Emma’s report highlights key issues and recommendations and equally important, it documents multiple anthropogenic threats, all of which were quantitatively shown to be increasing in horizontal extent across sites and vertical depth in both case study areas—almost no sites have gone unaffected in Syria. 

Emma’s research also underpins her principal belief in the value of cultural heritage. As she notes, “The role and importance of heritage in community wellbeing is understudied, despite its current high profile in local and international government agendas. I aim to collect and debate evidence on the roles and contributions of cultural heritage in wellbeing for the first time, showing how it improves the quality of life of individuals and communities, the extent to which it impacts on our mental state, how it underpins our legal status and thus identity, and how we react when we are removed from it.”

Emma’s voice on the state of Syria’s cultural heritage has been heard in wide variety of media, and her dedication to documenting the most comprehensive list of the damage continues. She is working to assist various government departments and non-government organisations to better protect cultural heritage. Her findings are published in freely available reports with GHF and BANEA, which have been used by organizations such as UNESCO and cited in many news reports.

She is also an active member of the U.K. Committee of the Blue Shield and the NGO Heritage for Peace, and is actively working to promote national and international policy changes that will protect cultural heritage during conflict. 

Abha Narain Lambah
Award-winning conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah has come a long way since she started her career. Growing up in Delhi, she was surrounded by historic monuments, and that childhood exposure led her to restoration and conservation. Now she owns her own firm, Abha Narain Lambah Associates, which specializes in architectural conservation, building restoration and retrofit, historic interiors, conservation assessment studies, urban signage and street furniture. For its efforts, the firm has won five UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Heritage Conservation. 

Lambah, who obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in conservation architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, has a long line-up of impressive projects to her credit. These include the restoration of the 15th century Temple of Maitreya Buddha in Basgo, Ladakh, the 15th century Chandramauleshwara, the 16th century Krishna temples at the World Heritage Site of Hampi, nomination dossiers for Shantiniketan and Hyderabad, and preparation of management plans for Ajanta World Heritage Site, and the old fortified city of Sisupalgarh.

A consultant to Global Heritage Fund, ICCROM and World Monuments Fund, Lambah believes that being a conservation architect requires “dogged perseverance and huge amounts of patience” to move from a master plan to actual implementation. The core of her architectural practice today focuses on colonial buildings, most of them 19th century Victorian Gothic. Her current projects include Bombay High Court, Convocation Hall of University of Mumbai (designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott), and Viceregal Lodge, Shimla. Her other well-known projects in Mumbai include Mani Bhavan, Horniman Circle, Khotachiwadi and the Mahalaxmi precinct.

“In Europe, strong urban conservation rules ensure that any historic area is well regulated ... We need to adopt these [rules] for India where the policy is ‘monument-centric’,” says Lambah, who is currently consultant to New Delhi Municipal and is also helping prepare the first regional conservation plan for Sikar district in Shekhawati Heritage Zone for the Rajasthan government.

Lambah believes that every heritage structure “dictates its own philosophy.” To create awareness and to ensure that our rich building legacy is not destroyed, she advocates “starting from school education, public awareness through newsprint and media and finally, the attitude of a child’s growing environment.” 

She has been awarded the Sanskriti Award, Eisenhower Fellowship, the Attingham Trust Fellowship and Charles Wallace Fellowship, wherein she undertook intensive training in conservation techniques.

Princess Alia al Senussi
Princess Alia al Senussi’s genealogy is no ordinary family tree. She was born in Washington D.C. to a Libyan father and an American mother. Her father, a member of the royal al Senussi family, was exiled from Libya in 1969; her grandfather, Prince Abdallah al Senussi, was a political leader in the Libyan government under King Idris.  

Alia spent parts of her childhood in Cairo and California, attended school in Switzerland, and studied in the U.S. before finally settling in London. Her eclectic educational background and her rich cultural heritage ably qualify her for work focusing on the Middle East, from Tunisia to Dubai. 

Her first interaction with the art world was purely by chance, in 2005, while working with Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, who built the Ship of Tolerance in Siwa, Egypt, an art project that was part of the Venice Biennale in 2010. Soon enough it became quite clear to Alia that her first job in the arts would transform into a  career. 

Working on the project in Siwa was particularly intriguing for Al Senussi because it bordered Libya, a country of her heritage that she had not previously visited. Her interest in political science, international relations and the history of the Middle East balanced perfectly and allowed her to creatively get involved in the various issues facing the region and its culture.

Alia is an executive at Generation Three Family Partners, a multi-family office based in London and Zug, Switzerland. She is also the head of VIP Relations for the Middle East for Art Basel. She also devotes a great deal of time to writing features for international publications and media outlets related to family patronage and Middle Eastern art and cultural initiatives. Al Senussi's work in the Middle East also includes being a patron of Art Dubai, where she formed a Board of Patrons that includes galleries, curators, and institutions interested in Middle East arts and culture. 

Besides being active in the Middle East’s contemporary arts world, she also holds a variety of non-profit board and committee positions and an active role in promoting young patronage of the arts in London. She is a founding member of the Tate Committee for Middle Eastern and North African Acquisitions, the Board of Patrons of Art Dubai and the Middle East Circle of the Guggenheim as well as was a founding member of the Advisory Board of Edge of Arabia.  

In 2011, Alia joined the board of trustees of GHF UK, where she focuses on their cultural preservation activities in Libya. Last year, she joined the GHF Mission to Libya, meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Sedeg Karim, Libyan officials from the Department of Antiquities, and the Ministry of Culture in order to extend aid in conservation, planning, and partnership across multiple platforms including expertise in archaeology, conservation, arts, education, and economic development.

View of Buddha statues discovered inside an ancient monastery in Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar on November 23, 2010. The archaeological dig is located at the world's second-biggest unexploited copper mine. The Chinese government-backed mining company, China Metallurgical Group Corp., which won the contract to exploit the site, has given archaeologists three years to finish the excavations. Archaeologists fear that the 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery will probably be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins.  AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
View of Buddha statues discovered inside an ancient monastery in Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar, Afghanistan. (Shah Marai/AFP via Getty)

Joanie Eva Meharry
Joanie Eva Meharry first arrived in Afghanistan in 2009 to research the history of the looting and destruction of the National Museum following 30 years of war. The National Museum, once described as “one of the most opulent small museums in the world,” was the repository for all of the major finds during the age of archaeological discovery, As part of her research, she interviewed key museum staff and cultural heritage specialists, and ever since she has continued to work to preserve and promote Afghanistan’s ancient cultural heritage.

With funding from a GHF fellowship, Joanie researched the ancient monastery of Mes Aynak, a magnificent ancient Buddhist city in Logar province. It is the most important archaeological discovery in the last generation and received international attention when the Taliban destroyed the two, 1,700-year-old sandstone Buddha statues in 2001. 

Mes Aynak is the world’s largest rescue dig, with more than 60 archaeologists excavating under the protection of 200 armed guards. But even now, the site is threatened because it sits atop rich copper deposits and may be destined for razing, following a multi-billion dollar deal signed between the Afghan government and the Beijing-based mining giant, China Metallurgical Group. 

Joanie has contributed thought-provoking commentaries, advocating for the protection of ancient heritage sites while promoting natural resources. Her work, along with the extensive media coverage about Mes Aynak, have helped to raise international awareness and spurred a sense of urgency to document the frantic preservation of the site before its destruction. 

In 2012, Joanie directed the project Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage. Aiming to promote the work of cultural heritage specialists in Afghanistan, the project produced a series of short videos on KabulatWork.tv, Asia Society, Homeland Afghanistan, and numerous articles published in Dari to promote local education and awareness. Joanie has also advocated for the building of a new national museum in Kabul to house Afghanistan’s ancient antiquities—such as the renowned Bactrian Gold hoard—an important step for the redevelopment of the country’s national identity. 

She is collaborating with an Afghan colleague to publish Untold Stories as an educational booklet, which will be printed in Dari in Afghanistan. The booklets will be donated to ABLE, the Box Library Extension at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, and distributed to hundreds of communities and schools around the country. She is also writing a book about the looting and destruction of Afghanistan's cultural heritage during the past 30 years of war, the focus of which is the history of the national museum. Fittingly, a large part of this work will be devoted to oral histories with Afghanis, who have a longstanding oral tradition through which they have shared their culture and traditions for generations. 

Dr. Sada Mire
Sada is currently the only archaeologist working in Somalia. After decades of colonialism, civil conflict and poverty, significant sites of importance in Somalia, both architectural and cultural, have been left to ruin. With her local team, she is the first Somali archaeologist to survey important sites since the collapse of the Somali state. Her work in the field has seen these sites rediscovered, their importance revealed to both international and local communities, and the value of their preservation given a wider forum, stressing the need to keep these places alive for future generations. She has also worked in Somaliland, a self-declared and unrecognized part of Somalia.

Sada is originally from Mogadishu, and at age 14, she and her family fled the civil war, finding asylum in Sweden. The desire to learn more about her people’s culture and history led her to study archaeology at School of Oriental & Africa Studies (SOAS) and University College London (UCL). 

During her doctoral studies, she returned to Somalia for the first time and learned first-hand that there was no government body or organization funding culture. This led her to a worldwide mission of giving talks and informing the global community until finally the U.N. funded her position working with the Somali government. She is currently advisor to the director of the Republic of Somaliland’s Department of Tourism & Archaeology, a position which she founded in 2007. 

During her excavations, Mire explains the impact of the findings to the local communities so that they can better understand the history of Somalia, its rich cultural heritage and the cultural, social, and economic value of these findings for the country and its people.

She is now the founder and executive director of Horn Heritage, a charity created to protect and promote the archaeological heritage of the Horn of Africa by mapping the monuments and sites of Somaliland, with the core belief that cultural heritage is a human right. To this end, Horn Heritage is also assisting in the creation of Somaliland National Heritage Law. Under Sada’s direction, HHO has plans to build a center in Hargeysa for scientific research, archive and education Together with the Somali government and the Paul-Valery University in France, the teams are collaborating on a project to support archaeological excavations at sites in Somaliland.

Dr. Sarah Parcak
It has been estimated that a mere 1 percent of Ancient Egypt’s wonders have been discovered. Dr. Sarah Parcak is determined to change that, using satellites to scan and search under the sands, where she has already found cities, temples, and pyramids.

Originally from Bangor, Maine, Dr. Parcak, attended her first excavation mission in Egypt at Mendes, led by Professor Donald Redford of Penn State University in 1999. She double-majored in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (Egyptology) and Archaeological Studies. In her final year, Sarah took a class that changed the course of her professional career and her life: Observing the Earth from Space, an introductory class in interpreting satellite imagery. 

In 2005, Sarah was accepted to Cambridge University, where she focused on using satellite imagery and ground survey to map landscapes in the Egyptian Delta and Middle Egypt. In 2007, she launched the Laboratory for Global Observation, a group with close ties to NASA in the exchange and study of satellite imagery. 

Alongside her life partner and colleague, Dr. Greg Mumford, Sarah co-directs the Survey and Excavation Projects in Fayoum, Sinai and Egypt’s East Delta at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The field of satellite remote sensing has contributed much to the study of archaeology and advancement in discoveries with great potential for Egyptian archaeology and excavations across the globe. While this area of study is only in its initial years, significant discoveries are made every year, including the capability to assess archaeology landscapes in nearly real time. 

Her book Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology, published in 2009, is the first book on satellite archaeology methodology, and her work has been featured in many print and media outlets, where she has also appeared in two documentaries for BBC and the Discovery Channel. The BBC sponsored Dr. Parcak and her team’s yearlong research using infrared satellite imaging from commercial and NASA satellites that shed light on 17 new pyramids, more than 1,000 tombs, and 3,000 ancient settlements. Egypt’s Lost Cities aired on the BBC in May 2011.