photo essay

Sharing Moments in Time: ACOR’s Photographic Database for Documenting Cultural Heritage

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.

Screenshot of ACOR Starchive

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.

Al Khazne (Treasury), at Petra, 1999. Jane Taylor collection. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.

West side of Jabal Khazali, Wadi Rum, Jordan, 1995. Jane Taylor collection. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.
Aerial photograph of the Colonnaded street (Cardo maximus) from south to north, Jerash, Jordan, 1998. Jane Taylor collection. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.

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.

Conflict Heritage

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.

Ain Dara, Syria, 1982. Linda K. Jacobs collection. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.

Threatened Heritage

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.

Kerak, Jordan 1995. Charles Wilson collection. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.

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.

Aerial photograph of Nabataean fortress and adjacent Early Bronze Age cemetery at Fifa, Jordan, 1998. Jane Taylor collection. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.
Aerial photograph of Early Bronze Age cemetery at Fifa taken using a drone (UAV) in 2016. Compare the density of the looters’ pits with Taylor’s 1998 image. Photo by Austin “Chad” Hill. Courtesy of the Landscapes of the Dead project.
Neolithic statues being unearthed at Ayn Ghazal, Jordan 1983. Rami Khouri collection. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.

Lived Heritage

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.

Roman Theater during a performance, Amman, Jordan, 1985. Rami Khouri collection. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.

Making Connections

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.

ACOR Photo Archive Project intern Hala Saqqa working on the image database. Photo by Steve Meyer. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.

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.

Participants at the Second Annual Skill-sharing Workshop for Libraries, Archives and Museums, held at ACOR, Amman, in July 2018. Photo by Njoud Abu Hweij. Courtesy of ACOR, Amman.

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.

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A Free Online Photo Archive Explores the Middle East’s Pluralistic History

Jordan. al-Salt, plumber, Rami Khouri Collection, RK_J_2_S_71_179

A Free Online Photo Archive Explores the Middle East’s Pluralistic History

This article was originally posted on Muftah and has been reprinted here with permission. The original may be found here, originally posted December 2017.

By Jessica Holland. Published: 10 January 2019

In September 2017, the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan published an online archive of historical images from across the Middle East. The project is being supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Whilst working as an archivist, I helped start this ambitious project to digitize and publish 30,000 photos over four years.

In the process, I quickly discovered preserving relics of the past is far from the fusty hobby of be-spectacled, basement-dwelling librarians. Rather, it is a stubborn act of resistance; a refusal to let a rich cultural resource become irrelevant by giving it new life as an accessible digital collection.

Antiquities in the Attic

Digitization offers a fundamentally new and different way of interacting with archives. According to the traditional process of accessing archival images, one must first gain institutional permission to access a photo archive. One must then locate the right slide or photo print boxes, which are commonly cloistered away in dusty corners of basements or attics, and then obtain a working light box or slide projector to properly view the details of film slides. Even getting to this stage depends on the author of the photographs having been conscientious enough to label their work clearly. On top of all this, the photographs themselves must still exist, decades after production.

With the launch of the ACOR Photo Archive, this time-consuming analogue process has been whittled down to that of a Google-search-like experience. Content can be accessed across the globe, on a single platform. The images are searchable by the name of the cultural heritage site (designed to adapt to the varying transliterations of Arabic), the objects found in the photo, the names of the people represented, and many other types of information embedded in the photo’s metadata. New tags are added every day, so that going forward, the site can act like a visual bibliography. For example, if you search for Qasr Amra, the most famous of Jordan’s desert castles, the results will not only return images of the castle itself, but also photos of all the country’s other desert castles.

An Important and Growing Movement

ACOR Photo Archive’s material is a unique collection due to the diversity of subjects it includes. It currently provides a representative record of Jordan’s archeological and social history spanning from 1955 to the early 2000s. Photos soon-to-be-digitized will feature subjects from the 1970s onwards in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iran. Its historic photos of important sites are free to use and could be mobilized to support research proposals and grant applications.

The archive is currently made up of two main photography collections. One was donated by Jane Taylor, a British long-term resident of Jordan, a published author famous for her photographs of Petra. The second was donated by Jordanian-American, Rami G. Khouri, a published author on Jordan’s archaeology and respected political analyst who writes an internationally syndicated column for Agence Global. These large collections of around 15,000-20,000 images are accompanied by the photography collections of other travelers and archaeologists, which together offer a visual and textual record stretching back to the 1950s.

What all the authors of ACOR archive’s photos have in common is the desire to share knowledge of archaeology & the history of the region. Writing after the death of renowned archaeologist Jim Sauer, Khouri summed up this sentiment best: [Jim Sauer] made the complex easy to understand, distant history relevant to life in Jordan today, and intricate technicalities of archaeology and pottery a source of endless wonder and joy for lay people like myself.”[1]

The ACOR’s archival images are valuable as records of change for both archaeological-cultural heritage sites (more than two-hundred are represented in Jordan alone), as well as daily life in the Middle East over the past seventy years. Indeed, this record of change means that the archive has the potential to impact future heritage preservation projects across the region. They allow visual comparison with the past, thereby illustrating recent damage and helping experts and local communities decide how sites should be managed in the future.

ACOR’s Photo Archive is part of a growing trend of digital archives across the region. NYU Abu Dhabi’s archive has an extensive collection of historic photos featured on its Instagram page (widening its popular appeal through more tongue-in-cheek posts). Darat al-Funun, an art gallery housed in Amman’s fashionable Jabal al-Webdeih district, also hosts an exhaustive online archive of video and images relating to the gallery’s exhibitions. It also features artist talks and musical performances over its almost thirty-year history. On a smaller scale, there are commendable efforts at documenting the modern visual heritage of the region, such as the Sultan-al-Qassemi-managed Instagram dedicated to highlighting the architectural heritage of the Emirate of Sharjah in the UAE. (You can check out ACOR’s instagram here.)

Threats to Cultural Heritage

One of the motivating factors for digitizing and uploading the archive is the imperative to document and preserve the heritage of the Middle East, as it goes through another decade of dramatic aesthetic and political change. The stakes involved in these transformations are highlighted by the saddening example of Khaled Assad, director of antiquities at Palmyra Museum in Syria. Assad went to his grave in 2015 protecting the location of priceless artifacts under his care from ISIS.

Armed conflict is not the only threat needing to be faced. Far less dramatic, but potentially as destructive, is the ordinary process of ageing photographs, which, if lost, would erase vast amounts of cultural history. Digitizing as fast as possible is essential to ensuring that old images can survive as a reliable historical record.  By making digital copies of past images accessible, present and future knowledge production is positively impacted, and the active or accidental suppression of knowledge is avoided. 

ACOR Photo Archive’s digitization project has already born fruit in this respect. It is possible to access a digitized image of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, Syria, photographed in 1982, by archaeologist and author Linda Jacobs. The photograph offers a stark contrast with the current mosque; severely damaged by heavy fighting with its minaret reduced to rubble in 2013. In the future, collating such images could be of significant help to restorers and conservationists seeking to faithfully repair this and other monuments.

Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, Syria, 1981. Photo by Linda Jacobs, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

The ACOR Photo Archive also depicts the very forces threatening cultural heritage in the region. For example, it includes photographs of the archaeological digs of 1982 and 1983, in which the Ayn Ghazal statues – among the earliest large-scale depictions of human forms in the world (from the mid-7th millennia) – were unearthed in Jordan. As the photographs illustrate, the excavation site lay mere feet from the highway, highlighting the threats to physical cultural heritage posed by routine urbanization. Archeologist Gary Rollefson, a key member of the team that discovered the Ayn Ghazal statues, has participated in the digitization project, providing extensive background information on the digs cataloged in the archive.

Ayn Ghazal excavation site near major road, 1982-83. Photo by Rami G. Khouri, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.
The upper layer of the cache of plaster human statues and busts found at Ayn Ghazal, 1982-82. Photo by Rami G. Khouri, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.

Contributions to the ever-growing archive

The ACOR archive is not just designed to reach a large audience. It is also meant to inspire widespread participation. The project’s online platform, created by Digital Relab, is designed so that researchers, experts, and knowledgeable members of the public can contribute greater detail to specific photos in the form of tags.

In particular, the project seeks contributions from Jordanians who could provide details to accompany the images of daily life in Jordan in the 1970s and 1980s. The addition of more personal histories, such as the life story of Amman’s steam train driver, Mr. Fathalla (as photographed by Jane Taylor below), or identification of the men drinking coffee in the Ottoman-era capital of Jordan, As-Salt, would foster a sense of local ownership and participation in the writing of the country’s history.

Mr. Fathalla, Hejaz Railway steam train driver. Photo by Jane Taylor, courtesy of ACOR Photo Archive.
Two men in As-Salt, 1982. Photo from Rami Khouri collection at ACOR.

By encouraging people to see their old family photographs as intimately connected to the public history of Jordan, Palestine, and the rest of the region, the archive aims to encourage citizens to take steps to preserve and digitize their own personal collections.

Un-told stories exposed

Access to information determines who can take part in the construction of history. By digitizing ACOR’s photographic film archive, unique content is being made available worldwide, for free. My hope is that the archive can provide a platform for local people in the region to take an active role in writing their own history. It will also provide a resource for people worldwide to access more nuanced portrayals of a part of the globe often misrepresented by over-simplified headlines. This will lead to the broader appreciation of under- or un-told stories of the wider Middle East.

The ACOR archive project is about more than just making images digital. Rather, it is about providing the raw materials for new interpretations of the present and the past in the Middle East, both amongst researchers and the general public.

Views are my own and do not necessarily represent those of American Center of Oriental Research, Amman (ACOR).



[1] Khouri, Rami G., ‘James A. Sauer,(1945-1999), An Appreciation and Remembrance’, ACOR Newsletter, Winter, 1999, Amman, Jordan.

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