When we bury something, it’s usually because it’s dead or we want to hide it. But what if burying something actually extended its life? It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes burying excavated ancient art and architecture is the best way to keep it safe from environmental and human threats. This is the case for cultural heritage sites all over the globe—from the world’s oldest preserved footprints to dazzling Roman floor mosaics.
The Dirt on Reburial
There are many scenarios where reburial is the best option for an excavated heritage site. Exposure to a harsh environment, human threats like looting, excessive tourism, or simply walking on fragile remains, and the lack of resources to adequately protect a site can all factor into a decision to rebury. Most often, it’s a combination of these things that influences the decision.
There is no single response to preserving a site, as no two sites have identical conditions and threats. But in the end, the goal is always to prevent or reduce the rate of deterioration. Addressing deterioration’s causes, not just treating its symptoms, is why reburial is such an effective conservation tool.
Vigilance and long-term monitoring are also key in effective preservation—conservators often use local materials to maintain reburials, and visit them regularly to perform visual inspections and confirm that stable conditions are being kept year-round. Some of Getty’s reburial projects have been monitored over decades, although reburial can also be short-term or seasonal.
Learning from the Past
The history of archaeology and conservation also provides support for reburial. A flurry of archaeological excavations in the 19th and early 20th centuries put many sites in danger, and for some of those places, reburial has been the best response. Sites were often excavated without a proper understanding of the risks involved, and in many cases would have been safer if left undisturbed.
This was the case at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwest New Mexico. There, intense excavation and the resulting need for continuous maintenance threatened the integrity of thousands of masonry structures, earthen architectural mounds, rock art images, and more that are part of the prehistoric Chaco cultural systems. Descendants of the Chacoan communities preferred a more passive approach to the care of the park, and reburial was a way to return the structures to the earth while not allowing the elements to destroy them. The Getty Conservation Institute worked with the United States National Park Service in the 1980s and ‘90s to develop methods of partially reburying some structures within the park that are rarely visited.
Perhaps the best-known example of reburial is the Laetoli Trackway in northern Tanzania, home to the world’s earliest hominid footprints, approximately 3.6 million years old. Because of its remote location, age, fragility, and importance to understanding early humans, the decision was made to rebury the trackway after its excavation in the 1970s by the famous archaeologist Mary Leakey. It was later revealed that lack of maintenance of the site caused the reburial mound to be overgrown by acacia trees, whose root systems threatened to damage the footprints. In the 1990s, the Conservation Institute developed an improved reburial and monitoring system to prevent plant growth and erosion.
Bringing Buried Art to the Surface
Mosaic floors or pavements are often found in the ruins of ancient Roman and Byzantine buildings. Made of thousands of small pieces of stone and glass (called tesserae) set in lime mortar, they frequently depict gods, goddesses, mythological tales, or present elaborate geometric patterns. These mosaics are mostly well-preserved when first uncovered because floors are the first parts of a site to be buried naturally over time once the buildings are abandoned.
Once excavated, however, they are vulnerable to a wide range of threats, and many of these mosaics have been lost or damaged beyond repair. This is one ancient art form that benefits from reburial more than others, and Getty has spent many years working with local professionals on mosaic reburial as a component of projects in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Cyprus.
Different materials, including soil, sand, and gravel are used in reburying mosaics to prevent damage and deterioration caused by root growth, animals, and humans. The material layers may be separated by permeable membranes such as geotextiles or ordinary plastic netting to prevent the layers from mixing and improve performance. In the past, soil has often been used to rebury because it is readily available during an archaeological excavation and it was the material that helped preserve the site prior to excavation, and so it makes sense to use it again. Today, sand and gravel are more frequently used for maintenance reasons.
But not all history stays buried forever, and today the GCI is working with the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus at the ancient site of Nea Paphos in Cyprus to protect Roman mosaics by different preventive measures, including reburial and the construction of protective shelters. Among the many beautiful mosaics at the site is Orpheus and the Beasts, which has been the object of GCI conservation efforts since its excavation in the 1980s. It is currently protected by reburial after years of safeguarding by a temporary shelter designed and constructed by the GCI. One of the aims of the current project is to create a long-term shelter prototype to protect some of the site’s mosaics and allow them to be safely presented to the public. Other mosaics throughout the site have been, and will continue to be, reburied for their long-term protection.
Reburial extends the life of many sites, can offer the opportunity to educate visitors about conservation, and provides another option when regular care and protection is not possible. It is one of the best conservation choices for sites around the world. After all, many of these sites were buried for thousands of years, and with these efforts, can stay preserved for thousands more.