Safeguarding the Past

Safeguarding the Past

Newcastle University experts are protecting cultural property and preserving unique archives

Gertrude Bell archive image of the Pyramids

Newcastle University's Professor Peter Stone OBE is leading efforts to protect cultural property and heritage in zones of armed conflict around the world. Professor Stone has been a tireless campaigner for protecting items such as monuments, archaeological sites, important artefacts and works of arts from destruction and looting, culminating in him being appointed UNESCO Chair for Cultural Property Protection Peace in early 2016.

"Cultural properties are more than simply bricks," explains Professor Stone. "Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Syria have seen the looting of museums and unnecessary damage to significant archaeological sites and places of heritage. Such destruction has a significant impact on the well-being of local communities and frequently leads to the escalation of conflicts."

Professor Stone's work, 'A 4 Tier Approach to CPP (cultural property protection)', has provided a model for non-governmental organisations, international military and policy makers. "While individual officers usually understand and fully accept the importance of cultural heritage, its protection during conflict has not, until recently, been high on their agenda," he says.

In September 2017, after 15 years of campaigning from Professor Stone, the UK government ratified the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols. The Convention and its Protocols are the primary international legislation with a worldwide focus exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict. It was set up as a result of the massive destruction and looting that occurred during the Second World War.

"The hard work starts now to deliver on our responsibilities under the Convention," says Professor Stone. "I really hope that the Government turns legislation and ratification into a positive commitment to support those trying to make this happen."

Since being appointed UNESCO Chair for Cultural Property Protection Peace, Professor Stone continues his work on a global scale. He is also collaborating with UNESCO World Heritage Sites worldwide to investigate how they can be used as tools for peace. Most recently, in October 2017, Professor Stone presented at Peru’s International Cultural Forum, an important element in developing the cultural strategy for the country.

Professor Stone has also just returned from Australia where he gave keynote addresses at two conferences on this topic and joined Australian colleagues in meetings with officials from across government encouraging Australia to ratify the two Protocols to the 1954 Convention.

Globally significant archives

Gertrude Bell was a British woman who travelled the world as an archaeologist, mountaineer and explorer before World War I. She subsequently became a diplomat and had a unique role in the British administration of Iraq during the creation of the state in the early 1920s.

Newcastle University is home to a unique archive of her letters, diaries and photographs documenting her extraordinary life. Recently, Archaeology expert Dr Mark Jackson and University archivist Ian Johnson, led a successful bid to have the archive registered as a collection of global significance by UNESCO's International Memory of the World Programme.

The memories preserved in the archive are of world-wide significance because of the places she visited. Home to almost 10,000 items, the archive provides a record of the people and cultural contexts from multiple ethnic and religious groups living through the transition from the Ottoman Empire of the late 19th century, to the period of the establishment of the modern Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian states. Bell’s personal perspective on the transitional period from the Ottoman Empire before World War I until 1926 provides unique, irreplaceable documentation of the formation of the Middle East and her instrumental role in that process.

"The archive documents the wide range of people and places Bell encountered during her travels in the late 19th and early 20th century, many of which subsequently have been radically changed," explains Dr Mark Jackson. "It represents a priceless and unparalleled source of documentary heritage for a very important period of societal change at the end of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. It is an internationally important memory of the contribution of an extraordinary woman to the contemporary world."

The archive is one of only a handful in the UK to be inscribed into the International Memory of the World Register, and is one of only two UK university-held collections to feature in it. Newcastle University is now using its UNESCO recognition to improve access to the archive for users around the world, including additional online digitisation and interpretation, reaching out to diverse communities in the UK and abroad whose heritage is recorded through Bell’s personal activities and reflections.

"The archive preserves numerous records of people and places across the world now dramatically changed," says Dr Jackson. "Many deliberately destroyed by population transfer, ethnic cleansing and in wars – who would have thought a few years ago, for example, that some of the most important buildings at Palmyra in Syria would have been destroyed in 2015."

Get updates on our research

You may also be interested in...

Nurse and elderly patient in a wheelchair.
Making Conversations Count

Our work helps people with dementia and their loved ones to communicate

Bricks with wires and test equipment
Building a Smart Future

Our experts are devising 'Smart’ bricks to improve sustainability

Image of woman holding an apple and a doughnut
Reversing Type 2 Diabetes

Our findings could benefit millions of people across the globe