The dangers of 'world heritage'

Claiming archaeology as global property risks alienating local communities

Tour guides wait for tourists to offer them camel rides at the historic Meroe pyramids. Stock photo
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What's the link between archaeology and local heritage?

For most western archaeologists the answer is that there isn’t one. The prevailing belief in the discipline, rather, is that all archaeology is part of our global heritage, and should be treated as such, instead of as something tied intimately to the people who happen to live on or around an archaeological site today.

Archaeological sites are not local heritage; they’re “world heritage”.

The idea has become so widespread that even you (if you are not an archaeologist) might agree without realising it. And those of us who do work in the field would hardly blame you; the large number of archaeological sites on Unesco’s “World Heritage” list certainly has everyone enthralled to the idea that we all own the global material past.

The reality, however, is that the concept of world heritage can be dangerous, if it is not thought of with more nuance. It can cause damage to living populations, especially those who live in the context of poverty and conflict.

The discussion should start with definitions. “Archaeology” writ large is about materiality – the recovery of the material past. As I've written in these pages before, archaeology is a thing-centred industry: it’s about stuff. Pyramids. Temples. Mummies. Tombs. Gold. Jewellery. Weapons.

But “heritage” writ large is about identity. It is something (tangible or intangible) that is claimed by individuals and groups. It is a person-centred concept – fluid, and dependent on time and context. It is wholly constructed by the person or people who assert ownership over it according to what their interests are; who they want to be viewed as.

The two often come into conflict, particularly when archaeologists “discover” sites that are already well-known – and important – to the people living near them. Often, for these people, the sites form part of their own narrative of their heritage, whatever the historical “truth” of the matter. As a result, archaeology’s habit of claiming those sites for the whole of humanity, often sealing them off for the sake of preservation, sometimes deprives local people of that part of who they are.

It happens a lot in the Middle East and North Africa.

Over the past 10 years, I have worked as an archaeologist and anthropologist across the region. One of my specialities is critically analysing how archaeologists roll out the concepts of archaeology and heritage across different contexts. This work helps us to understand the impact they – we – have on modern populations, and make recommendations to mitigate any negative impacts people in our profession might have.

Take the pyramids and ancient royal city of Meroe, in what is now Sudan. It is one of two cultural sites in the country that are on the Unesco World Heritage list. While popular media outlets often call the pyramids “forgotten”, they are anything but – particularly for the people who live around them.

Heritage is a person-centred concept - fluid, and dependent on time and context

Meroe was built by the rulers of the Kingdom of Kush, sometime between the 7th century BC and the 3rd or 4th century AD. The Kushites gain particular respect from archaeologists because they not only built the largest number of pyramids anywhere in the world, but they were also the only people in their region to have been impervious to Roman annexation. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Kushites were polytheistic, and their time was long before the foundation of Islam, or the arrival of Arab civilisation into the area.

But the people who live around Meroe today are predominately Arab Muslims, with little or no ancestral, spiritual or cultural connection to Kush. The Kushite era seems so far in the past, and so detached from what the land it sits on has now become, that it is easy for academics, archaeologists and the international community to label it “world heritage”, rather than local heritage.

And yet, Meroe is important to the local communities living around it. Their ancestors may not have built the pyramids, statues and stelae that make the site famous today – they are barely even taught Kushite history in school. But they consider Meroe’s treasures to be part of their ancestral landscape nonetheless. For centuries, the Meroe site has been a place for them to admire, and to bond and socialise. For example, the pyramids have long been the site of huge festivals and New Year’s Day parties. Actually, it’s not so different in many ways from how the Kushites themselves might have used the site – for gathering and important cultural events.

The local communities also use the lands around it for their livelihood. Meroe’s royal city is located by the Nile, in and among villages and agricultural farmland that has been owned by the local communities for centuries. Farmers work the land, and pastoralists often take their animals to graze in the city as it has a large number of acacia trees – a rarity in the increasingly desiccated landscape.

But accessing the area has become tougher for them. One of the tricky things about World Heritage sites is that once they are given that title, there are a number of steps taken to protect them. In fact, national governments are normally required to take such steps if they want the honour – and economic value – of having a World Heritage site at all.

Sudanese and international authorities, as well as archaeologists, have identified a number of threats from which Meroe needs protection. They include sand and wind erosion, as well as period floods. But the main threat has been identified as the local community.

To counter this threat, so-called “buffer zones” have been set up around the site, cutting villagers off from the site. The creation of these buffer zones has a negative impact on crop yields and herd numbers – and the local communities were not offered compensation in return.

These communities are, by and large, extremely poor. And in the context of their extreme poverty, the concept of World Heritage has become extremely dangerous.

There are many studies out that there that reach these conclusions in the context of other archaeological sites and communities. Increasing numbers of archaeologists and anthropologists have found similar issues arising in across Africa, South America and Asia.

There is, of course, a very logical rationale for the measures taken to protect archaeological sites, regardless of how we all might interpret them. A festival held amid ancient pyramids today is not quite as harmless as one held 2,000 years ago, given the widespread use of non-biodegradable and sometimes corrosive modern inventions like plastics and fireworks. And while local communities may have enormous respect for these sites, they do not always have the education nor the resources required to truly preserve them.

But finding a solution that preserves “things” while respecting people requires rethinking this notion of “world heritage”. That means truly embracing the idea that heritage is a context-specific idea – one that runs across time and across communities, from abstract “ancient” eras to right now, in this very moment, from monolithic notions of “global” to individual, local people who are actually on the ground.

When we are clear about that, we, both as archaeologists and consumers and beneficiaries of archaeology, can better find ways to protect the past without sacrificing what is of value to living people in the present.

Published: November 05, 2021, 4:00 AM