Talal Akasheh, the meticulous and determined chemistry professor who is documenting Petra, in Jordan, is making steady progress in his huge task of classifying all the monuments and archaeological features in the 2,500-year-old city.

Talal Akasheh (left) checks the effectiveness of anti-erosion measures. Ironically, the devastating erosion (right) produces the rose tints for which Petra is famous. © Rolex / Marc Latzel

Since he won his Rolex Award in 2008, he has added another 1,000 archaeological features to his massive geo-archaeological information system (GIS). The GIS now comprises data on 3,000 features from Petra and the surrounding areas. Professor Akasheh estimates the total number in the area at 3,500.

The additional 1,000 features include many tombs, which are a vital key to assessing the number of inhabitants who lived in the ancient city. Among other discoveries are many reliefs, including a notable work depicting a horse, and stone niches and facades showing various levels of weathering. Many of them were neglected by researchers, authorities and tourists.

“These features are not big,” Akasheh says, “but they are still [archaeologically] relevant. Some are partially buried or in faraway places.”

Ad Dayr, the Monastery, one of Petra’s biggest monuments. © Rolex / Marc Latzel

Despite the project’s size and the volume of research it requires, Akasheh’s passion for his work remains strong. He retains the love for Petra that inspired him when he first saw it as a young scientist. He has now devoted almost 30 years to this ancient civilization. “Petra is still full of things worth documenting,” he says.

At present he is applying imaging techniques “to learn more about [the monuments’] weathering”. He uses X-ray fluorescence, but only on a small area of monuments, as it is “very time-consuming and costly”. He is also applying multispectral and 3D imaging to several monuments. “With these techniques you get interesting results for a little investment – you only need to buy special digital cameras.”

Professor Talal Akasheh with a Bedouin taking measurements at Petra to add to the GIS. © Rolex / Marc Latzel

Results from this research were presented at the 7th International Conference on Science and Technology in Archaeology and Conservation, which Professor Akasheh co-organized in Petra in December 2010. He gave two lectures on “GIS and Risk Assessment in Petra” and “Thermo-graphic and 3D Analysis of the Obelisk Tomb in Petra” at the gathering.

“We were delighted with the conference,” he says. “We received about 100 very good papers from 34 countries, from some of the best scientists working on the conservation of stone monuments. We organized this in Petra so that they could see our problem. It was a great opportunity to create a network of people working together.”

Akasheh’s future plans include the integration – pending final approval and further funding – of his Petra GIS within the larger Middle Eastern Geo-database for Antiquities (MEGA), to make it more easily accessible to researchers. MEGA is an Arabic-English, web-based geographic information system run by Jordan’s Department of Antiquities (DoA) and set up by the World Monuments Fund and the U.S.-based Getty Conservation Institute. It was established in June 2010 to help the DoA manage the country’s numerous archaeological sites.

Professor Akasheh is currently working, with an Italian team, on geological problems in the Siq, the sinuous gorge that leads to Petra. Substantial funding from UNESCO and also from the Italian Foreign Ministry will support his ongoing work at Petra, particularly related to the Siq. “We are also cooperating with the University of Leuven [in Belgium] on a project to carry out risk assessment in a selected area of Petra,” he explains. “And we plan to delineate the Petra Archaeological Park Boundaries. The use of our GIS is crucial to this project. Several postgraduate students from Leuven will write their theses on this project.”

Part of the Siq, the winding gorge that leads to Petra and is a focus of Prof. Akasheh’s current work. © Rolex / Marc Latzel

A London-based production company, ORTV is also planning to film a documentary about his work in Petra this year for the PBS “Nova” television science series.

Although he continues to devote time to Petra, Talal Akasheh’s life has changed since his retirement in 2010 from the Hashemite University. He is now working as a consultant for the newly created University of Madaba, owned by the Catholic Church. Funded by the Latin (Catholic) Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the university is under construction at a site 30 kilometres south-west of Amman, the capital of Jordan. Akasheh is helping with the supervision of the overall construction and, more specifically, with the preparation of the research infrastructure, including laboratories. “The university will contribute to the higher education of many Jordanian and Middle Eastern young people,” Prof. Akasheh says.

In another major development, in November 2010 Akasheh was elected to the Lower House of the Jordanian Parliament as a deputy from the newly formed, 22-member People’s Parliamentary bloc.

He points out that Parliament sits for four months a year and two or three times beyond that, so he can keep time for his work at Petra.

He adds: “I couldn’t have recorded those 1,000 extra archaeological features without the Rolex Award. However the economic situation has been bad these last few years and I couldn’t capitalize on publicity from the Rolex Award to get more support. But we are getting some funds from UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund now, so all in all, it’s not too bad. Many things are happening in the project, although slowly.”

Learn more about Talal Akasheh

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