Archaeology is the study of human beings in the past through the material remains they left behind. This constitutes the basic record and information of all the vestiges of human existence and manifestations identified in the form of immovable monuments, wall structures or ruins, and movable or portable objects like tools, artifacts and botanic resources.
Archaeological heritage may be found above or below the surface of the earth. Heritage located above the surface may be observed and identified easily, while that below the ground is not easy to identify. It may be buried through successive environmental events and deposits which bear superimposed layers of human existence in the stratigraphy. Alternatively, it may have been intentionally buried through human actions (e.g. burial sites or tombs).
Archaeological heritage is fragile and vulnerable to different natural and human agents that can cause a negative impact. Natural forces include flooding, weathering, vegetation, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and fires. Another factor, caused by humans, is restricted to deliberate or accidental damages by different individuals and institutions. Destruction which can be caused by institutions include archeological excavations, mechanized agricultural activities (such as plowing), mining, quarrying, exploration and extraction, land development, development of transportation networks (such as roads, highways and airports), land reclamation, land modifications, construction of residential areas, and commercial and public utilities. Damage caused by individuals may include looting or theft, vandalism, and damage resulting from lack of knowledge.
Eritrea has a rich history, ranging from prehistoric archaeology occurring before the advent of written records to the recent events of the struggle for independence. Much of the archaeological heritage in Eritrea is now under threat due to modernization and development activities. Unfortunately, the rate of destruction and loss is increasing. If archaeological sites are abandoned to disappear, important knowledge and information about our history will be lost. Although the loss of heritage is irreversible, it is often avoidable and can be mitigated if effective protection and conservation measures are undertaken.
It is widely known that archaeological heritage is at risk of decay or destruction. Sudden natural forces, such as floods, erosion, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions can rapidly destroy archaeological heritage. Moreover, longer term natural factors, such as climate change, and increased temperatures, humidity and moisture can lead to gradual deterioration and destruction.
The destruction of archaeological sites can also be caused by archaeological excavation activities if they are not implemented appropriately or cautiously. Planners and developers should conduct thorough archaeological impact assessment studies and be guided by conservation ethics.
In principle, archaeological excavation is regarded as a destructive process. Vital records and the integrity of historic sites may be lost if excavations are not designed and monitored carefully. There are several examples of excavation leading to destruction during projects conducted in Eritrea, including during work on the archaeological sites of Adulis and Metera during the colonial period.
Excavation activities were carried out on the sites of the ancient port city of Adulis and the town of Metera in 1868, 1905, 1962, and 1974 by British, Italian, and French amateur archaeologists and scholars. The excavation activities damaged the historic sites in several ways. Precious collections were taken out of the country, while the sites were left exposed to destructive agents without any post-excavation remedial measures. The archaeologists and scholars also failed to provide substantial documents to reconstruct the past and salvage the integrity of the archaeological sites.
Adulis is located within an environmentally and geologically sensitive region. It is affected by flooding from three major rivers in the eastern escarpment, namely the Haddas, Alighede and Komaile, which leads to massive deposits of sediments. In addition, strong seasonal winds have, over time, resulted in eolian dunes and deposits. Decay caused by salinity from the sea and moisture is also high. Adulis is also located in a seismic affected region that may cause deformation of the ancient structures that were left exposed by the excavations during the colonial period. Conservation of the Adulis site is particularly challenging and complex due to the need to sustain the archaeological structures exposed by the poorly planned and executed excavations of the late 19th and early 20th century.
In the case of Metera, excavations during the 1950s and 1970s focused on uncovering the site’s rich heritage, without salvaging its integrity. Much of the heritage of the site has been removed and taken elsewhere, while the site has been left exposed without any preservation measures to prevent further deterioration and decay.
Archaeological heritage is always at risk. However, threats can be avoided and mitigated by promoting good management and encouraging cooperation among heritage managers, decision makers, and developers. It is important that legal protections and proper attention by concerned institutions is extended towards heritage resources, while integrated management of environmental and cultural resources is greatly required. Presently, there is a lack of awareness and proper coordination, as well some negligence, leading to considerable damage and loss. Unfortunately, a number of potential archaeological sites have also been affected by urban and rural developments.
It is undeniable that a number of development activities are required to meet human needs and challenges. Human behavior and culture are in a dynamic state of flux and there are always new demands and new innovations. Demands for the provision of basic services and facilities have grown tremendously. Similarly, a wide range of activities, such as like mining, extraction, housing, road and dam construction have increased.
These activities may bring negative consequences upon irreplaceable archaeological and cultural heritage. Thus, harmonizing development activities with heritage conservation in Eritrea is central to supporting integrated heritage management. A number of commendable activities have been realized through coordination. For example, feasibility studies within the mining sector have allowed cultural impact assessment studies to be conducted, thus enabling the salvaging of significant heritage sites and materials. Similar coordination activities have also occurred during road construction and other development-related activities.
However, a number of sites are threatened by destruction amid development. For instance, settlement encroachment and land reclamation continue to affect important sites, like Qohaito and Metera, and instances of bulldozed sites are visible in some areas. As well, a number of sites around Asmara have been affected by urban development and residential expansion, while road development and other construction activities adversely affect archaeological sites in rural areas.
To ensure the sustainable management and conservation of the archaeological heritage of Eritrea, closer cooperation and coordination between relevant stakeholders is required. Developers and planners should consider the potential impact of various activities upon heritage sites. The integration of cultural impact assessment in development projects will best reconcile the needs of national development and cultural heritage conservation.