Restoring ancient archaeological sites

An architect specialised in restoration, renovation and reuse of historical buildings has found Salalah to be a unique destination. Arianna Rocca, the Italian architect, is well versed in preserving and enhancing archaeological sites. Her archaeological mission in Oman with Prof Alessandra Avanzini, head of the Italian mission of Pisa University in the Sultanate, won praise for its excavation at Khor Rori-Sumhuram, a Unesco site.

With a Masters in Habitat and Cooperation, she along with colleagues formed the Architetti Migranti Association, working in the field of urban requalification through citizens’ participation.
Currently, she works with companies specialised in restoration while devoting her time between construction site supervision and architectural projects.
She spoke to the Observer recently about her restoration experiences.

How did the restoration work come about in Salalah?
My work towards the end of 2018 was for restoration of the walls of Sumhuram. The Italian Mission to Oman (IMTO) of the University of Pisa, directed by Prof Alessandra Avanzini, has been working in the area of Khor Rori since 1996. The main goal of the expedition was the study of the history of Khor Rori and its ancient port of Sumhuram. Khor Rori, a village 40 kilometres east of Salalah, is best known for being the centre of the ancient south Arabian town of Sumhuram.
IMTO realised the potential value of the site and its importance for the ancient history of Oman and Eastern Arabia. Two archaeological campaigns were conducted annually by archaeologists and architects. The interesting results of excavations at the site and the surrounding plains were presented in the Sumhuram archaeological gallery.

What were the main findings of your work?
Khor Rori is a small settlement that did not expand territorially for the whole term of its occupation. It is an excellent example for studying the activities and spatial organisation of pre-Islamic south Arabian cities. Although investigations are not yet concluded and many issues are still open, excavations, particularly those of recent years, have been decisive in defining the urban structure of the city, casting light not only on the layout of the settlement, but also on the domestic architecture, places of worship, production activities, and procurement and conservation of water.
The importance of adding Khor Rori to Unesco’s Word Cultural and Heritage list as ‘Land of Frankincense’ encouraged the Office of the Adviser to His Majesty the Sultan for Cultural Affairs and IMTO in creating instruments and facilities to disseminate knowledge of the history of the city and improve the site for the visitors.
The walls of the archaeological site have been restored because they were damaged after cyclone Mekunu in May 2018. During the excavations, some restoration works were carried out. Also, maintenance works have also been done along tourist path, in order to clean open areas such as streets and squares.
During cyclone, the upper part of some walls were disassembled so the intervention regarded the reconstruction, because stones were in precarious balance.
After removal, the surfaces were cleaned and rebuilt using the dry-stone wall technique or with the aid of natural masonry mortar with lime putty base, free of cement, for outdoors.
The new structures were built after positioning the geotextile layer on the top of the original part of the wall in order to recognise the intervention of the restoration work.

What are the local materials used in restoration in Oman?
The work was carried out by respecting the original architecture, using only local materials and trying to imitate natural layout.
I was involved with architects and engineers in the restoration and conservation of walls. The best part of this work was the possibility to collaborate with archaeologists and learn more about the history.
The team of six worked as part of the restoration namely, Eng Michele Lillo, Arch Roberta Niada, Arch Pietro Stefanelli, Eng Giovanni Randazzo and myself under the supervision of Arch Stefano Bizzarri. Archaeologist Giulia Buono with the supervision of Prof Alessandra were managing excavations and discovering new parts of the site that were buried.

Have you been part of any restoration in Turin or other spots in Italy?
My work mainly relates to restoration sites like churches in Turin, northern Italy, ancient villas or old buildings. I am collaborating with Studioblu’s Arch Emanuela Barberini and Arch Luca dal Pozzolo at the project of valorisation of Alba Fucens, an archaeological site between Rome and Pescara. It’s an amazing place, the archaeologists in 1970 started the excavations of an entire Roman city with amphitheatre.
I am also trying to find some collaboration with other architects who work in Oman. I really would like to continue my working experiences in Oman, because it is a very beautiful country.

How was the work experience in Salalah with expatriate coworkers?
Fortunately, I travelled a lot during my life and I lived in Australia and Argentina during my studies. I love to know more about new cultures and learn other languages. I am very grateful for this experience in the Sultanate because I learnt more about this amazing country which is full of history and beautiful natural landscape.
My team composed of Hanif, the mason, and helped by expatriate excavator workers Shoagh, Nahim, Yakub and Asif.

How and what made you take up architecture as a full time profession?
I started very young drawing houses when I was about six years old the first time when I drew the house of my dream. My father was a restorer and my mother an interior designer, so I cannot actually remember the day I started to think about architecture as a profession, because it came to me easily. After high school, I joined Polytecnic University of Turin to study Architecture for Sustainability, and then collaborated with some architecture firms of my city. — Photos by Stefano Bizzarri