Sharing Moments in Time: ACOR’s Photographic Database for Documenting Cultural Heritage
Originally published in ASOR’s “The Ancient Near East Today”, vol. VI, no. 11 November 2018. Read the original here.
By Glenn Corbett and Jack Green. Published: 13th January 2019
The past two decades have seen rapidly expanding damage to archaeological and heritage sites across the Middle East, the result of urbanization, industrialization, and conflict. At the same time, there has been a dramatic digital revolution in archaeology, including the development of online photographic databases focusing on archaeological and cultural heritage documentation. One such collection is at ACOR, the American Center of Oriental Research, in Amman, Jordan. The need is clear – photographic resources in institutions, alongside archival records, carry essential information related to archaeological and historical sites, objects, landscapes, and people, yet these collections have often remained hidden from view. Digital preservation priorities, academic interest in archives, and limited prior publication have naturally led to a focus on the earliest phases of photographic documentation – especially with digitization of rare collections from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Photographs taken within living memory have had lower priority, including 35mm color slides that were so popular from the 1960s to the early 2000s. But as the technology to view slides is largely obsolete, there is now an important need to make these images accessible through digitization. The ACOR Library has an archival collection of more than 100,000 photographs preserved in a variety of formats, including 35 mm slides as well as negatives, prints, and born-digital images that document numerous archaeological and cultural heritage projects. Given its wide range of content and subject matter, this collection has become a critical resource for scholars from around the world involved in cultural and natural heritage preservation and management, as well as historical and sociological research.
This archive is now presented through a new online database accessible at https://acor.digitalrelab.com/, launched as part of ACOR’s Library Photographic Archive Project, and made possible through a 2016 American Overseas Research Centers grant from the U.S. Department of Education (Title VI). Through the four-year course of this project, 30,000 images and associated metadata from ACOR’s collection will be digitized and put online. Over 10,000 images are already available online for research, teaching, publication and general interest.
With a strong emphasis on visual documentation of Jordan’s heritage, the archive includes images taken by ACOR’s long-term directors (since 1975) related to the center, its activities, projects, and events, as well as numerous archaeological sites. There are also important collections from individuals who have developed close ties to the institution, including Jane Taylor, Rami Khouri, Linda Jacobs, Nancy Lapp, and Kenneth Russell.
What is special about the ACOR Photo Archive is that it includes not only images from famous sites such as Petra, Wadi Rum, and Jerash, but also smaller and less well-known sites in Jordan visited and documented over the decades, as well as people and places in other countries. Taylor’s photography in Jordan and neighboring countries, for example, has spanned more than three decades, and includes aerial and on-the-ground images of important sites in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Iran, as well as now threatened or destroyed sites in war-torn and destabilized countries like Syria and Yemen. In addition, ACOR also maintains the photo collections and primary documentation of two important archaeological projects: The ‘Aqaba-Ma’an Archaeological and Epigraphic Survey and the American Expedition to Petra’s Temple of the Winged Lions excavations.
Beyond simply preserving and making available ACOR’s vast photographic collections, the ACOR Photo Archive is intended as a tool for researchers, educators, cultural heritage professionals, and local management authorities interested in assessing changes in archaeological sites and their surrounding landscapes over time. In particular, these digitized and archived photos, which cover nearly eight decades of change across the countries of the Middle East, provide invaluable visual documentation of cultural heritage sites that are now increasingly under threat from development, illicit excavation, and deliberate, targeted destruction by both state and non-state actors. Despite the role these images may play in preserving the memory of damaged sites, others tell the equally powerful story of how archaeological sites and landscapes—separate and distinct from their cosmopolitan or universalist heritage value—have always remained part of the essential fabric of the lived human experience of the region.
One of the functions of the ACOR Photo Archive is to provide photographic documentation of archaeological and heritage sites as they existed prior to damage or destruction during recent regional conflicts and upheaval. The archive’s collections—whether Jane Taylor’s spectacular images of traditional Yemeni architecture in Sana’a from the 1990s or Linda Jacobs’s beautiful photographs from the early 1980s of famed Syrian archaeological sites like Palmyra, Mari, and ‘Ain Dara—capture these places and their settings before they came under siege or were even reduced to rubble by aerial bombardments. For programs like ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives or CAORC’s Responsive Preservation Initiative that aim to document these destroyed sites and the damage that has been done, such photos are now invaluable records of a heritage that, in most cases, will never be recovered.
While there is now broad awareness of the plight of cultural heritage in conflict zones, there remains relatively little concern about the more mundane but no less significant threats facing heritage sites across the region. The ACOR Photo Archive serves as a invaluable tool in observing less severe changes in and around sites through time, whether from gradual encroachment of nearby towns and villages, the effects of sustained looting and illicit excavation, or even the neglect and slow degradation of sites after they have been excavated.
From Charles Wilson’s photography of Karak in the 1940s, for example, we see the famed Crusader-era castle surrounded by a few dozen Late Ottoman farmhouses and relatively barren hillsides, a far cry from what one of central Jordan’s largest towns looks like today. Similarly, by comparing Jane Taylor’s 1998 photograph of the Bronze Age cemetery of Fifa in Jordan’s southern Ghor with a drone photo by Austin “Chad” Hill taken from nearly the same perspective in 2016, one can easily see just how much looting has intensified at the site over the past two decades. Lastly, the stunning image by Rami Khouri showing the freshly uncovered Neolithic statues of Ain Ghazal, Jordan, remind us of the importance of archaeological context and what might have otherwise been lost to development had the site not been carefully excavated in the 1980s.
The ACOR Photo Archive also preserves a vibrant record of the many ways that everyday people from across the Middle East have engaged with their traditions, landscapes, and cultural heritage across the decades. For scholars and researchers, for example, it is remarkable to see Charles Wilson’s 1945 photograph of camels being used to transport the wheat harvest to markets in Amman, or a Jane Taylor photograph from the Yemeni coastal Tihama that documents traditional methods of fishing. But much more than that, such photographs, like Rami Khouri’s stunning 1985 photograph of Amman’s Roman Theater packed for a public performance, remind us that cultural traditions and heritage sites, while certainly important to preserve for their historic and archaeological value, are invested equally with the memories, experiences, and identities of the local people who engage with these places every day.
The ACOR Photo Archive project also provides excellent opportunities for sharing and connecting diverse people, institutions, and resources. Social media is used to share recently digitized images through @acorarchives on Instagram, as well as on Twitter and Facebook. This helps build awareness of the collections, and connect with similar projects in North America, Jordan, and the wider world. It will be possible to widen the scope of research and collaboration with resources of well-dated and well-sourced images – for example, the Manar al-Athar Open Access project at Oxford University, the Arachne project coordinated by the German Archaeological Institute including its Syrian Heritage Archive Project, the APAAME aerial archaeology resource, the EAMENA project, and the crowd-sourced Yemeni Cultural Heritage at Risk project.
Although the archive’s content is all-important, the links between the photos and metadata, and their presentation online in an understandable and searchable format, could not be achieved without the support and assistance of our dedicated project team and staff. ACOR has also instituted an active internship program to manage the pace of its digitization efforts, which in turn is helping train a number of Jordanians in scanning, rehousing of photographic materials, and digital archiving – all skills which we hope may be applied elsewhere in the future. Other archives in Jordan have benefited from engagement with ACOR’s archive and the sharing of skills and knowledge. A workshop was first held in summer 2017 in Amman on archives, tools, and approaches. In July 2018, ACOR held its second workshop which focused on digitization of photographic archives, attended by a wide range of institutions from Jordan and further afield with a focus on archaeology, cultural heritage, history, library and information sciences, and arts and culture.
The workshop provided an opportunity for professional networking and sharing experiences, information, and challenges regarding diverse collections and projects. By leveraging technology to make these photographs available and freely accessible, ACOR hopes to better equip American, Jordanian, and international researchers and policy makers to monitor and assess the numerous threats facing heritage sites in the Middle East and especially Jordan. What is more, this project helps establish best practices for processing and digitizing its collection of photographic and archival records, particularly those related to archaeological and cultural resource management documentation. To find out more about the Photo Archive, go to https://photoarchive.acorjordan.org/, and also check us out at the ASOR Annual Meeting this November in the Cultural Heritage Management session.
Glenn Corbett is Program Director at the Council of American Overseas Research Centers based in Washington D.C. and is the former Associate Director of ACOR and former project lead for the ACOR Photo Archive Project.
Jack Green is Associate Director of ACOR based in Amman, Jordan, and current project lead for the ACOR Photo Archive Project.