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Revisiting Cultural Heritage Values

Cultural heritage properties are valued for a multitude of reasons. Distinctive architectural or landscape features, unique events attached to historical places, aesthetic appeal and inspirations as well as communal or symbolic components all contribute to the family of heritage values that people aspire to enjoy and sustain for their benefit and the benefit of future generations. Heritage values can potentially generate social and economic benefits, and it is important to provide a comprehensive thought about the values of historical places to make sense why conservation of cultural heritage places aims to maintain these values. In this respect, a brief scheme of heritage values is provided in this article in light of the Eritrean patrimony.Material remains of past human activities provide a primary source of evidence to understand the content and evolution of places and of the peoples and cultures that produced them. The unique record of the past distributed over much of Eritrea, for instance, constitutes traces of early man that continued to be created, transformed and destroyed in the course of several million years. The evidential value contained in the segments of human history contributes to our understanding of Eritrea´s past.

The material record, represented by fossil evidence, stone tools, rock art engravings and paintings, ceramics, monuments etc solely offer evidence about the distant past and of poorly documented aspects of the more recent past. Geological deposits and archaeological records, however recent, are the primary records of the evolution of different landscapes in Eritrea. Where it is possible to obtain dates for these remains, chronology becomes a strong marker of these evidential values. The evidential values of heritage resources also stimulate the potential for research in other disciplines that provide multiple lines of evidence to understand the human past comprehensively. The survival of these lines of evidence in the archaeological record allows interpretation using contemporary scientific techniques. Geological reconstruction, comprehension of landforms, fauna and flora and insight into the evolution of species are, therefore, important lines of information about the evolution of these landscapes and the life that sustained on them. Multi-disciplinary pursuits into the past are also significant to offer understanding of the nature of past cultures and environments and apparently the evidential values become paramount. Authentic material remains and genetic lines that have been inherited from the past constitute the evidential values from the archaeological record. As far as the material evidence of cultural heritage is concerned, much of the archaeological pursuits in Eritrea by and large depend on the evidential dimension of Eritrea´s heritage to outline major synthesis of the least known aspects of the country´s prehistory, historical and medieval periods.

Similarly, cultural heritage places offer ways in which the present can be connected through them to past cultures, events and aspects of life. This is made possible by looking at the historical values contained in these places. These values establish links between past and present people. The essence of shared experience between past and present cultures helps to interpret the past. In this respect, surviving elements of the past that have been incorporated in the present provide insight into past people and events through shared experience. Aspects of design, technology or social organization that survived as exemplary of their type in the present are ideal instances that illustrate the historical values of cultural heritage values. Industrial and technological establishments such as the Rail-way heritage of Eritrea, for example, provide an integral component of a shared experience between the present and past in Eritrea. Aspects of the Rail-way heritage offer a glimpse of an authentic modern heritage of Eritrea that combines past amenities with the present ambience.

The historical values take on a particular meaning where a place is associated with important events. People who visit places where something momentous took place can be stimulated to have imaginations and emotions. Insights are provided through linking historical accounts of events with the place where they happened provided that the place still retains some resemblance to its appearance at the time. Historical places that are closely related to the struggle for independence best illustrate these values.

In the same vein, shipwrecks, particularly those from the World Wars, in the Eritrean Red sea Coast appear to be historically significant and possess exceptional historical values commemorating a particular period in history. Moreover, many landscapes are associated with the development of other aspects of cultural heritage such as literature, art, music or films. The Stele of Matara, exemplifies this phenomenon as it is associated with the first evidence of non-vocalized Geéz script in this part of the world in as much as the Dahlak islands saw the development and elaboration of the Kuffic( Classical Arabic) calligraphy from 8th-12th centuries. The responses of people are naturally informed by their perceptions of the values related to the historical events.

On the other hand, cultural heritage places embrace aesthetic values by which people derive sensory and intellectual stimulation from a place. The conscious design and the artistic endeavor invested in the historical place produce these aesthetic values. The result of the ways in which a place has evolved or has been used and valued across time may also significantly contribute to the aesthetic appeal of the place. The Qohaito cultural landscape fits this description as multi-layered settlements from different periods and their evolution in the landscape gave a unique aesthetic appeal. The aesthetic value of a place is primarily related to what is often known as a design value. The design value of a place embraces composition visible in terms of form, proportions, views and vistas as well as materials and craftsmanship. The value may be the work of a well-known architect or a cumulative product of a vernacular tradition of building. The design value is particularly visible in the historic environment by the architectural aspect related to it. The rarity and completeness, quality of design and craftsmanship, and innovation in the conventional architectural design are markers of the architectural values of a place. Aspects of monumental architecture from the archaeological sites of historical periods in Eritrea, vernacular architecture and the urban blend of modern architecture from cities across Eritrea are instances where the aesthetic, design and architectural values of heritage can be appreciated.

People attach meanings to a cultural heritage place and relate to it in many ways. Communal values relate to the meanings of a place for the people who relate to it and whose collective experiences and memories it holds. These values are closely tied to the historical and aesthetic values and yet have specific aspects. Commemorative and symbolic values which give the communal essence of a cultural heritage of a place reflect the meaning of a place for those who identify with it or have links to it. These places evoke past events and are important aspects of collective memory and identity whose meanings should not be forgotten. The meanings of these places may be understood through information and interpretation while the character of the places in itself may tell much of the story. Finally, cultural heritage places, however old or recent, offer educational values to society and can contribute to the economic values. An appreciation of the family of values centering on cultural heritage places makes it important to safeguard these places for future generations.

A column prepared in collaboration with the Eritrea’s culture and sports commission

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