Partying for Palmyra: A Davos party with a difference

Peter Salovey
Image caption Will our cultural heritage be there to inspire us in the future, asks Peter Salovey

To be thought of as "forward thinking" is a badge of honour at the World Economic Forum, where pundits compete for the most quotable prediction of what the next 12 months will bring.

So getting Davos partygoers to care about centuries old artefacts, some of which are being destroyed thousands of miles away, is not the easiest of tasks.

But for Peter Salovey, the president of Yale University, the conference's obsession with the present, and with mammon, is short-sighted.

After a year in which sites such as Palmyra in Syria and Bhaktapur in Nepal have been destroyed by war and natural disaster, he decided to devote Yale's annual bash at the Belvedere Hotel to the importance of preserving the earth's cultural history.

"They are essentially what documents our humanity," he tells me, moments before opening the doors to a horde of Davos dignitaries - including celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma.

Ancient freebies

"Will [our cultural heritage] be there to inspire us, to unify us as humans?

"Will it be there to transcend national boundaries and political conflict?" he says.

Image caption Not your usual Davos giveaways
Image caption Do you want a copy of something 1,800 years' old - or 4,000 years' old?

In order to drive the point home, Yale's guests are handed unusual freebies.

There are 3D replicas of a 19th Century BC ancient Babylonian mathematical tablet illustrating Pythagoras' theorem - centuries before Pythagoras - and an exquisite limestone funerary relief from Palmyra of a woman called Haliphat who died in 231 AD.

On the back, a small QR code directs curious recipients to a website with more information on these antique treasures.

The giveaways are the result of preservation work carried out at Yale's Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, and the Smithsonian Institution, both of which study how to protect relics from the elements, and how to digitise objects using high-tech imaging techniques.

Their work, Peter Salovey says, is more important than ever before.

"[Artefacts] are in incredible danger today," he warns, "from human activity, from war, they are in danger from natural disaster and from climate change; they are in danger from the very tourists who love to see them."

Cultural demand

But for those who remain unmoved by pleas to safeguard the future of civilisation, the university has an economic incentive.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionDavos: The famous 1,800-year-old Haliphat bust
Image copyright BBC/Taylor Kate Brown
Image caption That's "Haliphat, daughter of Ogalta, son of Harimai" according to her inscription in Aramaic

"If you go to Venice, and buy a cappuccino in St Marks Square, why do you pay €14 (£10; $15)?" asks Stefan Simon, the director of Yale's institute.

"It's because you are sitting in front of St Mark's cathedral, in front of Porta della Carta, and the Doge's Palace, and all the centuries of history of that magnificent city."

Despite the rise of "virtual museums", in which people can digitally inspect ancient artefacts, Prof Simon argues there is still huge demand to experience cultural heritage first hand.

"Why does a city like Berlin have 10 million overnight tourism stays, and not a single DAX company?

"Because people want to see the Berlin Wall, the national museums, the castles."

It's an argument that may convince potential donors, but the institute's event is also aimed at those with political power.

Ancient mathematics: Babylonian style

By Tim Bowler, Business reporter

Image copyright Yale University
Image caption Ancient Babylonians 1, Ancient Greeks 0
  • Tablet YBC 7289 has one of the most famous mathematical texts from ancient Mesopotamia, a civilization that flourished between the fourth millennium BC and the early first millennium AD, in what is now Iraq
  • It can be dated to the 19th or 18th Century BC
  • It has a round shape typical for texts written by students who learnt how to write and calculate in cuneiform, the script used by Mesopotamian scribes
  • It proves the Babylonians knew that the ratio of the side to diagonal in a square is 1 to the square root of 2 - long before the Greek philosopher Pythagoras
  • And new research published in Science shows that the Babylonians were using sophisticated geometry to track the planet Jupiter
  • Previously, the origins of this technique had been traced to the 14th Century AD

Prof Simon would like to see a return of the "Monument's Men", a US Army unit deployed to save art stolen by the Germans in World War Two, and popularised in a recent Hollywood movie.

"I'm advocating for having a cultural preservation component in the military, with the United Nations, with the OECD."

Future past

But if world leaders won't commit to troops on the ground while sipping Yale's champagne, the events' organisers are hoping that those with deep pockets will help support cultural conservationists and academics.

"Leaders in all sectors need to think about these issues," says Peter Salovey.

"We want future leaders to appreciate the importance of cultural heritage and to pitch in in protecting it.

"This," he adds, "is the future of the past."

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