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Linking the Tangible and Intangible Heritage

There are things that we regard as important to preserve for the future. They may be significant due to their present or potential economic value or because they create a certain emotion within us. They might be objects that can be held and buildings that can be explored, or songs that can be sung or stories that can be told. Whatever form they take, these things form part of a heritage, and this heritage requires active effort on our part in order to safeguard it.

The term cultural heritage has changed content considerably in recent decades, principally to include definitions developed by professionals in the field. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festivals, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. The distinction between the tangible and intangible aspects of heritage has long shaped the discussions among professionals in the field.

While the monumentality/ materiality of a heritage property are emphasized, the intangible aspects of it cannot be seen in isolation. In other words, a heritage property constitutes physical element and the intangible aspects which are significant to assist in interpretations. The values attached to a heritage property are mainly a manifestation of the intangible aspects which contribute to the visibility and viability of a monument or an archaeological object. In this respect, it is significant to consider that a heritage property embraces the tangible and intangible facets of itself and looking at the relationship between these elements is important to understand a cultural heritage property in its entirety. It is, therefore, important to highlight these relationships. The article provides a glimpse of how these aspects of heritage are intertwined together in Eritrea´s cultural heritage. The discussion touch upon several examples but an emphasis is made on certain components to allow clear representation.

One of the main aspects of the prehistory of Eritrea concerns the production of lithic assemblages representing different complexes from Oldowan components to the more advanced microlithic industries of the Neolithic. A variety of these tools indicates complexity in terms of craftsmanship and scale of production. While the material evidence distributed over much of Eritrea demonstrates the range of industries embraced in its prehistory, the complexity in craftsmanship attest to the development of cognitive abilities of early men in our territory to control and manipulate their universe. Each of these developments entail with them knowledge to control and exploit food resources and a variety of environments and such resource exploitation mechanisms help us understand partially the development of the material acquisition and production schemes of early man. In this respect, a look into stone tool technologies embraced in Eritrea´s prehistory allows us to appreciate a variety of material implements as well as the cognitive and thought patterns which were developed for their production. In a similar vein, the rich heritage of rock art in Eritrea is a hallmark of the interaction of a material representation and the intangible aspects of the cultural complexity of early man. The range of sophistication from the choice of painting and binder materials to the arrangement of symbolic and cognitive behaviors in the prehistoric art allows us to understand how monumentality in the form of rock art can be significant to comprehend the depiction of symbolic and ritualistic components and social events of early man in this part of the Horn in prehistory.

The Classical Period of Eritrea´s antiquity is characterized by a wide array of monumental architecture and literary traditions that flourished from the 1st millennium BCE to the 1st millennium CE. Understanding monumentality during these periods cannot be accomplished without the detailed study of aspects of social organization, belief systems, craftsmanship and patterns of resource exploitation. Similarly, the development of letterforms and writing systems evinced during these periods can only be conceptualized with the full comprehension of the world-view of 1st millennium BCE-1st millennium CE societies in this part of the Horn. The relationship between the tangible and intangible heritage, therefore, can be drawn in light of these elements of Eritrea´s antiquity.

Furthermore, the medieval period in Eritrea best exemplifies the connection between the intangible and tangible. Traditions inherent to the contribution of Islamic and Christian civilizations in Eritrea have greatly contributed towards the shaping of the norms, practices and values of the contemporary Eritrean society. Perched on cliffs and religious sanctuaries, the traditions inherent to both religions have for long been preserved and transformed to culminate in the present realities of the Eritrean society. Material evidence to these traditions, therefore, cannot be seen in isolation from the aforementioned intangible components.

The legacies of the Colonial epochs also equally represent the connection between the tangible and intangible components of Eritrea´s cultural heritage. The relationship is expressed in the form of architectural features, industrial ensembles, battlefields and colonial facilities. While architectural features and industrial ensembles represent the harmony between local and modern amenities in the form of urban and industrial development in as much as the cultivation of the “spirit of the city“, battlefields and colonial facilities (such as prisons) are reminiscent of the resentment, heroics and bravery of the Eritrean people as well as the brutality of colonizers.

Nothing best represents the intangible ethos of resilience, bravery, martyrdom and spirit of nation building than the heritage of Eritrea´s recent history explained in its thirty year struggle for independence. Battlefields and trenches reminiscent of the struggle not only constitute monumental ensembles but are also intangible aspects closely related to the essence of the State of Eritrea.

Each of the examples given in the article highlights the importance of the relationship between the tangible and intangible aspects of Eritrea´s antiquity. The valorization of the values embraced in these components is, therefore, important to help understand the complexity and richness of our cultural heritage and allow appreciation of these values by the wider society.

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

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