From Documentation to the Stewardship of Heritage: Lessons from Economists

The Temple of Aten at Tell-el-Amarna

In 1891 Flinders Petrie, an eminent archaeologist, travelled to the temple of Aten at Tell-el-Amarna in Egypt, supported by a team of local and British researchers. Following months of excavations they discovered a 300-square-foot New Kingdom (c. 1500 BC) painted pavement of garden and animals and hunting scenes.

Stephen Quirke’s book ‘Hidden Hands: Egyptian workforces in Petrie Excavation Archives’ is a reminder of the importance of the local people in these discoveries, and ensuring the opportunity for meticulous documentation by people such as Flinders Petrie who is widely seen as shaping Egyptian Archaeology.

Alas, in the years that followed inadequate protection from vandalism, a growing number of foreign tourists, and anger from local farmers around trespassing and the destruction of crops due to these tourists, led to the destruction of the site, which is today remembered thanks to Petrie’s documentation.

Stephen Quirke notes that ‘in practice archaeologists still pursue the past to the exclusion of the present inhabitants of the archaeological landscape. There is a threat with new technology that local people can become ever more remote from the new waves of discovery opening up from the likes of hyper spectral analysis and satellite imaging.

However satellite imagery has unlocked incredible powers of documentation, allowing people to see what is going on, anywhere in the world, in real time. But then again is a danger that such observational tools used by international experts can be seen as a source of power over local communities rather than a source of empowerment for the local people. It can lead to suspicion and further mistrust between the stakeholders aggravating the conflict. But in the stewardship of heritage stewardship politics, history, identity and economics are inextricably interwoven. All too often well intentioned international interventions are fraught with unintended consequences in the face of such complexity.

F. Schumacher in his book ‘Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered’, highlighted the important of ensuring interventions are appropriate in scale and recognise the complexity and interdependence of the ‘ecosystem’ in which they act. Schumacher’s ideas were firmly grounded in his work in the field and understanding of different cultures. The foundations for Small is beautiful were laid whilst working in Burma as an economics consultant which led to his idea of ‘Buddhist economics’ drawing on the idea of balance and sustainability in an economy which needed to serve a wide range of stakeholders and value systems.

Our common heritage is the ultimate commons issue and as such, perhaps we can learn from the Nobel winning Economist, Elinor Ostrom in terms of the principles with which to guide any intervention. Ostrom won her Nobel prize following years of extensive field research, investigating how communities have developed diverse institutional arrangements for managing their resources stocks, protecting commons and avoiding ecosystem collapse. Her work highlighted the idiosyncratic nature of the interactions between distinct communities and their commons, and these communities’ unique positions in being able to protect these commons. Elinor Ostrom commented ‘There is no reason to believe that bureaucrats and politicians, no matter how well meaning, are better at solving problems than the people on the spot, who have the strongest incentive to get the solution right’.

Accepting the diversity of different commons, Ostrom found that there are similarities in the way the different communities that she investigated were stewards of their resources. Elinor Ostrom set out eight key principles for managing a commons in a way that is both sustainable:

1. Define clear group boundaries around the community which is closest to the resource. 2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions. 3. Ensure that the local community can participate in modifying the rules. 4. Make sure that the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities. 5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour. 6. Develop a system, carried out by community members, of sanctions for rule violators. 7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution in the community. 8. Governing the common resource can be done in layers, with direct governance coming from the community with the support of externals.

How would the story of Tell-el-Amarna have been different had the local communities been engaged in the management of the commons in the way that suits them…? Perhaps Ostrom’s rules can help inform the debate on heritage stewardship, reinforcing the case for empowering local communities to develop their own unique systems for the protection of distinct global commons.

Nicholas Mellor, Skyviews Djenne; and Caspar Worthington, the Silk Road Project

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