Communicating Archaeology to the Public

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Archaeologists often assume the role of giving people what they want; that is, providing information about the past.

Insights about what went on in the past are indeed important to people from all walks of life. There is definitely an audience out there that is thirst for information about the past. Communicating archaeology to the public or engaging about the past with the public is often a dialogue that requires adequate channels besides the ambition to enlighten people about the past. Cultural heritage is, by its very nature, a shared resource, and information about heritage need to be communicated. As someone who has been engaged in the cultural heritage sector for over a decade, I often find the discourse intriguing and challenging. Dialogues with people of all walks of life have taken me to situate public interests or inquest around themes of the dating and uniqueness of findings as well as their preservation. More importantly, the resonance of oral histories, conjectures and myths often partake much of the conversation. These realities are shared with my colleagues, reminding us that heritage communication is crucial to the overall practice of cultural heritage management.

Until I was in my second year at the University, I literally had no exposure to the science of archaeology and only a vague comprehension of the principles of dating of artefacts of archaeological and historic value. Curiosities, fantasies and, at some points, doubts accompanied my surmise of the science as an uninformed pal would do in these days. Life later took me to pursue a profession in archaeology and presently I find myself working on materials from the ancient port city of Adulis as a PhD research. Part of my work involves dating some pottery materials and I now know how access to big laboratory facilities can yield dates for materials of archaeological significance.

Archaeology is a science though it is often relegated to the confines of humanities in the orthodox academic classification. Currently, I find myself in a work environment where communication with physicists, chemists and mineralogists has become a fact of life to better understand the materials I am studying from the ancient port city of Adulis. The list is not limited to these scientists but it should be emphasized that the scientific study of our heritage requires such an approach. Isotope dating, thermoluminscence, paleodose, alpha and gamma rays, synchrotron radiation for the study of cultural heritage, DNA extraction and the like, which may sound gibberish to the uninitiated, are jargons to a person fascinated by the archaeological materials and their dating. This should be communicated to the public in a comprehensible way to demonstrate that archaeology is not a mere ‘’fossil hunt” or collection of pottery fragments but rather a science that seeks to convey a message about the past. This, therefore, reminds me that as cultural heritage professionals in Eritrea we need to engage with the public in such a way than bemoaning curios inquests, or even fantasies from all walks of life.

It is not actually positive to approach communication in archaeology only from what is always considered as a “professional” perspective. Approaches in cultural heritage conservation are to a great deal technical and may not be amenable to norms, values and knowledge systems that exist in a society. A dialogue with the public often brings attitudes and concerns as well as available skills in a society into the overall process of cultural heritage management. Cultural heritage properties are maintained by people and the works of successive generations often contribute to their significance. What is valued from the elements of cultural properties for the future in a conservation process is indeed important to sustaining cultural values in a historic environment, be it an archaeological site, historic building or religious shrine. In this respect, meaning is attached on heritage objects through the symbolic components they constitute and people often find attachment to the heritage property via these elements. Finding a good balance in the dialogue with the public, therefore, is significant as change on the cultural heritage elements is maintained and managed by understanding the values people attach to them.

A couple of years ago, I came across an intriguing discussion with an Asmarino, in a workshop for the inclusion of the Asmara Heritage in the UNESCO List. We were not talking about UNESCO operational guidelines in its technical exuberance but rather on how either of us saw the “spirit of the city”, principally the “Asmarino” manifestation of the city that we both were born and raised in. He proudly claimed the 1950s and 1960s of his youth life embraced the real “spirit of the city” leaving me wondering which values and meanings should we give credence to preserve for the future. Our discussion echoed what actually would be discussed among stakeholders in cultural heritage management. It was a discussion, perhaps reflecting generational differences in the meaning we give to an emblem of heritage in Eritrea and yet once changes across ages are adequately monitored, we both would agree what we value as heritage would be maintained, restored and cherished to preserve the ‘spirit of the city’ that we both care for. Such an encounter indicates that it should be clear for an archaeologist or an expert, who masters the technical aspects of cultural heritage practice, that heritage communication is no single way traffic, where he/she assumes the role of enlightening the public. There is ample room to learn from the public as we all strive to engage with people from all walks of life for better management of our heritage resources.

Archaeological fieldworks present the venue for archaeologists and the local communities communicate on issues that resonate around cultural heritage. A scientific dig in an archaeological site or a place of historic importance can only be meaningful if archaeologists manage to forge a good rapport with local communities. An ideal instance of such encounters can be demonstrated by the fact that local communities are involved in the excavations in the ancient port city of Adulis and paleontological and paleo-anthropological sites of Buya and Engel-ela-Ramud basins of Eritrea. Such encounters are often accompanied with perceptions, curiosities and, more importantly, the expression of community values towards cultural heritage.

The parable our books are in our heads has evoked a number of premises as regards to the eminence of oral traditions and oral histories in Africa. Oral histories and traditions constitute a major part of the cultural heritage of many African countries and are no exception in the heritage bounty of Eritrea. Their omnipresent nature has created multiple points of social and cultural interaction in as much as becoming the repository of interconnected material, oral and written records. Oral traditions extend back beyond living memory while oral histories are defined as “memories and recollections of the individuals who experienced or witnessed in their own lives the events they relate.” The study of the past, and particularly in the African continent, constitutes a multi-source, comparative approach across a number of frontiers, namely archaeology, oral history and written accounts. Since much of the collective memory is held in oral traditions and histories, these accounts of cultural heritage could serve as a bridge between archaeology and text-based history, thereby enabling written references to be connected to archaeological record. This statement demonstrates how a balanced methodological impetus of available archaeological data, oral traditions and histories as well as written records can help tackle existing myths and fallacies in our historiography.

The accurate and authentic representation of Eritrean historiography via archaeological methods and data as a methodological virtue should be the basis of communicating with the society, whose oral traditions and histories have survived millennia. The inclusion of these value-systems, indigenous knowledge as well as the skills of local communities also remains an important aspect of cultural heritage management in Eritrea and, thus, should always be considered crucial to achieve the sustainable preservation and conservation of Eritrea’s elements of cultural heritage.

A cursory sketch of these personal encounters and experiences as well as trends in communicating heritage to the public highlight why such an enterprise matters and how it can best be tackled. In conclusion, in an era of digital revolution and electronic media, a multitude of alternative ways to communicate archaeology and cultural heritage to the public are available and, when approached in the proper way, can best serve heritage professionals and the public. In a country like Eritrea, where archaeological sites are unparalleled resources, there are always going to be discoveries to fascinate and inspire; our task is to make sure they are treated professionally in every respect, from unearthing, through post-excavation study, to publication and dissemination to both specialist and non-specialist audiences.