Local volunteers excavating through rubble to find objects buried under the destruction of Yemen’s Dhamar Museum.
This CAORC Field Note is adapted from the original Arabic text written by Shadad al-Ali, Director of the Dhamar Branch of Yemen’s General Organization for Antiquities and Museums (GOAM). All photos are courtesy of GOAM.
On May 21, 2015, the Dhamar Museum, which held thousands of objects recovered from one of Yemen’s most archaeologically rich regions, was targeted by a series of precision airstrikes. The relatively new museum, which was only a decade old and also housed the provincial office of Yemen’s General Organization for Antiquities and Museums (GOAM), was completely leveled and turned into rubble, with only the building’s underground storerooms possibly surviving.
The Dhamar Museum, before (right) and after (left) its destruction in May 2015.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the museum’s specialists and staff, with support from UNESCO and working alongside professors and students from nearby Dhamar University as well as concerned local community members, began surveying the damage and collecting and documenting artifacts that had been scattered around the site by the blast.
But the extensive museum included five exhibition halls and several storerooms, containing a collection of more than 12,000 objects, most of which were now buried beneath several feet of hazardous rubble and debris, collapsed and mangled from the airstrikes. Given the dangerous situation and limited resources, there was little local museum and GOAM officials could do to salvage their lost collections, knowing that with each passing day, the threats to the antiquities from looters, vandals, and exposure to the elements only grew.
Assessing the extent of damage to the Dhamar Museum.
Fortunately, through CAORC’s Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative, the dedicated and resilient team at the Dhamar Museum has been able to start the process of recovery. In September 2018, a team of 16 museum professionals, university faculty and students, and local volunteers began excavating and sifting through the rubble of the destroyed museum to recover the pieces of Dhamar’s past.
After first dividing the project site into different excavation units, the team worked in two groups to systematically remove rubble and debris from the collapse of two of the museum’s more important exhibition halls. The first team excavated in the area of a hall that had once displayed exceptional finds from Dhamar’s Islamic period, including the well-preserved remains of the minbar (or pulpit) from the Great Mosque of Dhamar. Although the wooden structure, dated to the ninth century C.E. (third century A.H.) and thought to be one of the earliest-known minbars in the Islamic world, was completely destroyed by the blast, the team managed to recover numerous fragments that are now being documented and conserved. Unfortunately, few additional objects were found amid the debris, as the hall’s ceiling had survived mostly intact, leaving the area fairly accessible to looters and vandals.
The recovery effort found wooden fragments from the minbar of one of Dhamar’s earliest mosques, dated to the ninth century C.E.
The second group worked to recover objects from an area where the museum ceiling had almost completely collapsed to the floor, leaving only a narrow crawl space where team members could excavate through the rubble. Working carefully and cautiously, they were able to recover scores of artifacts from Dhamar’s pre-Islamic past, including small camel figurines and fragments of South Arabian altars and inscriptions. Equally important, excavation revealed charred but still legible fragments of invaluable administrative documents, including copies of the museum registry and GOAM site records.
Among the recovered finds were several small camel figurines that had been displayed in the museum’s pre-Islamic galleries.
As the work proceeded, each recovered piece was systematically cleaned, photographed, and recorded, and then packaged for transfer to a secure storage and processing facility. Since many pieces recovered from the rubble were further damaged from exposure to the elements, project staff hope to soon begin work on conserving and restoring the most important objects from the collection, including the minbar of the Great Mosque of Dhamar.
But the project’s work has only just begun and several thousand objects are still buried in the rubble, waiting to be recovered. During the project’s next phase, the Dhamar team will start the delicate process of lifting the largest debris from the site so that new areas of the destroyed museum can be made accessible to excavation.
The specialist and volunteer team of the Dhamar Museum recovery project.
The J.M. Kaplan-funded Responsive Preservation Initiative (RPI), administered by CAORC, provides critical funding to support urgent preservation, documentation, and site management efforts at cultural heritage sites around the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean.
Learn more about RPI-funded projects at www.caorc.org/rpi-grantees.