There’s no getting away from it: the Roman city of Leptis Magna in Libya is gorgeous. It’s situated by the sea, the surrounding area is very underdeveloped, thanks to Gaddafi’s tyranny, and it gives you such a great idea of what a Roman city looked like. I’ve been twice, and would gladly go again. Even the approach to the amphitheatre (left) is like something out of a movie.
This thought was prompted by looking through some photographs of the city online. At the moment there is no package tourism to Libya. Nor will there be, until some kind of government arises once more.
Meanwhile, we do have photographs. Everyone who did go made copious photographs, and a lot of them appear online. Which is rather fortunate, really.
A couple of days ago I was searching vainly for photographs of Graeco-Roman objects from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. I found one site which presented as many photos of the Egyptian objects as it could find, with the note that photography was “no longer allowed” in the museum. That particular policy seems very short-sighted now, considering the attempts to loot the museum during the revolution. But at least some are online.
What I was looking for was the Mithraic monuments. For some time now I’ve been collecting photographs of all sorts of Mithraic monuments for the Mithras site, to create a reference. Even now I can tell that some interesting photos were once online, and no longer are. But once offline, they are gone.
Sites like Archive.org, which retain copies of sites, often omit photographs from the pages that they archive. Other sites misguidedly block archiving, which is sad when they then vanish in their turn.
We really do need a proper archive of photos uploaded to the web. It is a shame to lose what has been made and has been uploaded, when we need not. All that is required is will, disk-space, and some copyright-friendly location.
Archaeologists are particularly in need of a photographic archive. Their trade is one of physical monuments. You might think these are permanent enough, yet it seems remarkably hard even to locate them sometimes. I have been unable to discover the whereabouts of the finds from the Carnarvon / Caernarfon mithraeum, since the closure of the museum. Photographs would be invaluable… but of course I can’t make them if I can’t find the objects. Again and again in Vermaseren’s Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentum Religionis Mithriacae I find statements that such and such an altar is “lost”. And, let’s face it … archaeologists are notoriously bad at publishing excavation reports.
While working on the Egyptian monuments in the CIMRM, I noticed that at least two photographs included in it seem to be reproduced (without credit) from earlier publications. I don’t disapprove – on the contrary, such a catalogue of monuments might validly do just this. I have often gone to older publications myself and found photographs of items, where the item is included in CIMRM but no photo is given. But it shows that getting hold of images of monuments has long been a bottleneck. All the same, I bet some tourist photos of them exist, uncatalogued and forgotten.
There’s a lot of room for improvement. But it might start by taking rather more seriously the issue of archiving photographs that have been taken, that do exist, and could be of use.