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A community-based approach to archaeology being used in Oceania could be a model for the long-term conservation of heritage resources, highlighting archaeology’s role in practical development outcomes, say researchers.
By seeking local people’s involvement, archaeologists with France’s Institute of Research for Development (IRD) say their work not only uncovers valuable heritage sites that drive tourism, but also helps increase economic and social wellbeing, especially in societies recovering from traumatic past events.
“Archaeology is above all valuable for communities that have historically been mistreated and denigrated,” says IRD archaeologist Pierre Ottino. “It helps people find themselves by reconnecting with their culture and environment.”
Ottino has spent 15 years researching ruined settlements in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.
The islands — with a current population of just under 10,000 — were estimated to have had more than 100,000 inhabitants in the sixteenth century. But by the 1920s the spread of new diseases like smallpox introduced by contact with Europeans had reduced the population to 2,000, according to Ottino.This population drop contributed to severing links with traditional practices, encouraged by missionaries who promoted the islanders' conversion to Christianity and adoption of a European way of life.
However, removing dense vegetation from centuries-old ruins helped re-establish a connection with what “was known but not known”, he says.
The work sparked a desire among local people to reconstruct traditional housing based on elders’ recollections as well as Ottino’s research. The project not only created sites for tourists to visit — an important source of outside revenue for the islands — but also inspired a rediscovery of traditional practices, such as construction and wood carving.
“Everyone had a chance to participate, to reclaim and reconcile their shared history,” says Ottino.
The Marquesan project is one of several archaeological schemes the IRD is running under a ‘Local Heritage’ research unit that operates in more than 20 countries across Africa, Oceania, South America and South-East Asia.
“Archaeology is above all valuable for communities that have historically been mistreated and denigrated. It helps people find themselves by reconnecting with their culture and environment.”
Pierre Ottino, IRD
The scale of the IRD’s archaeological research is something of an anomaly among development research agencies, according to Paul Burtenshaw, an archaeologist currently working in Jordan at the Council for British Research in the Levant. He finds it difficult to interest UK development organisations in the potential value of archaeology.
“There isn’t a great deal of appreciation and understanding of archaeology’s relevance to a range of development agendas,” he says. “People don‘t really know what archaeologists do and how they could be of value to their goals.”
IRD archaeologist Jean-Christophe Galipaud says archaeology’s application in development research is often confined to “heritage management” with the primary aim of promoting tourism.
“It’s generally organised top-down by international institutions,” he says. “[This approach] promotes the global image of countries, but doesn’t always relate directly to communities.”
IRD’s grass-roots approach distinguishes it from other organisations, such as UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), that generally focus on building national landmarks for tourism, he says.
Galipaud, who is currently working in East Timor, a country just emerging from centuries of colonisation, says his approach is to work at a local level by involving communities when planning archaeological research.
“The Timorese people have lost a lot because older people died without passing down information,” he says. “The people in the village we are working with are very keen. They want to know how their ancestors lived and there is a real need to reconnect with their culture.”
Ottino says this local approach also means that communities have developed a better sense of the benefits of archaeological research.
“[The local people] saw that an archaeologist isn’t simply someone who comes and takes nice objects to put in a museum,” he says. “We really worked side by side.”