Jordan on Tuesday launched the world's largest online antiquities database, which details every archaeological site in the country and aims to help preserve its treasures. Its creators said the Web platform could be a model for Iraq, where looters have plundered its ancient heritage.
Experts said the Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities is the first such countrywide system. The site uses Geographic Information System, similar to Google Earth, to map 11,000 registered sites in the country — and a click on each reveals inventories of what they contain and reports on their conditions.
The public can use the material for planning visits. Scholars and inspectors approved by Jordan's Antiquities can update the information in a user-friendly way for other professionals to follow and for authorities to keep track of threats to the sites.
Jordan hosts a number of World Heritage sites, most famously the 2,000 year-old rose rock city of Petra — but also Umm er-Rassas, a city dating back to the 5th century that features ancient Byzantine churches, and Qasr Amra, an 8th-century Islamic castle. It is also dotted with sites dating from the Neolithic Age, through biblical times to the Crusades.
The $1 million MEGA program was developed in cooperation with Getty Institute of Los Angeles and the New York-based World Monuments Fund.
"Jordan is at the forefront of safeguarding its heritage," Getty's director, Tim Whalen, said at an Amman press conference with antiquities chief Ziad al-Saad unveiling the system.
"A piece of software is not going to stop looting," Whalen said, but MEGA's cataloging system will enable "greater protection and attention to archaeological heritage."
Archaeologists have increasingly used GIS and similar technologies to inventory digs and other uses. But Barbara A. Porter, director of the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, said that MEGA "is the first of its kind."
"It has been a huge undertaking in terms of its breadth, time and finance. Rarely do you find that amount of money involved in creating such a system," said Porter, whose center was not involved in developing MEGA.
Joseph Greene, the assistant director at Harvard University's Semitic Museum, said MEGA stands out from among other GIS archaeological systems, which have been more narrow in scope and intention.
MEGA is the "first countrywide system used by an antiquities department" and is unique because it can used both for research and for managing sites in a readily usable format, he said.
The online system defines the boundaries of each site, an important factor in trying to prevent urban encroachment on antiquities zones, its creators say. It can help authorities in planning strategies for research and tourism development, and makes it easier for government agencies to share information. Those working in the field can report theft of wear and tear caused by tourist traffic.
Al-Saad said the system is expected to be used regionally, especially in Iraq, which has seen widescale damage and theft of its extensive archaeological treasures.
Whalen said MEGA will give Iraqi colleagues a modern way to inventory the country's sites, their condition, potential threats, but "most importantly identify their geographical boundaries in a relatively easy-to-use system."