Commentary

Ethiopia must overhaul archaic heritage system to protect ancient treasures

For far too long, heritage management decisions in Ethiopia have been left in the hands of government appointees with managerial backgrounds rather than capable individuals with any true archaeological, anthropological, or conservation experience.

Few nations have the incredible depth and breadth of cultural resources, heritage, recorded historical narratives, or archaeological potential as does Ethiopia.

Yet, even across Africa, many nations have second and third generations of archaeological expertise in the areas of field survey, excavation management skills, and scholarship. Due to multiple complicating factors, Ethiopia lags far behind most nations, not only in proper utilization of, and engagement with, cultural resources and heritage management, but more importantly, in understanding and implementing archaeological practices and site identification for the preservation and promotion of this rich heritage.  As a result, Ethiopia is missing out on many positive applications of heritage in terms of socio-economic development and national identity formation.

Most nations have robust legal protection for cultural resources

For far too long, heritage management decisions in Ethiopia have been left in the hands of government appointees with managerial backgrounds rather than capable individuals with any true archaeological, anthropological, historical, or conservation/heritage education, experience, or training.

Over the last several decades, the failure of many of these top heritage employees to truly grasp the changing nature of cultural resources and heritage management issues has led to squandered opportunities and destruction of untold archaeological and heritage resources and cultural materials.

Within the various sectors of tourism and heritage management and conservation, favoritism and/or nepotism has limited equitable access for Ethiopian scholars to research and/or be trained in the necessary acquisition of the specialized skills of comprehensive field survey or excavation management in order to become proficient practitioners in their fields.

Decades behind

Additionally, existing legislation and regulations in relation to research, conservation, archaeological investigation, found artifacts, and heritage buildings or sites is dated at best and or simply archaic. This legal structure remains multiple decades behind best-practices or acknowledged current heritage management principles.

The highly politicized and bureaucratic process of working through the Agency for Research and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) has frustrated many true heritage and cultural resource management experts and has long-permitted abuse, corruption, and mismanagement of historical, religious, cultural, or archaeological sites by scholars willing to manipulate and work the system. Even the weak legal protection currently provided is rarely adhered to, with known and identified cultural resources across Ethiopia being destroyed or degraded with little to no consequence or recourse.

Most nations have robust legal protection for cultural resources and archaeological/heritage sites. Within these legal frameworks, competent, informed policy-makers understand the nature and benefit of proper heritage management and protection, and thus accommodate all research potentials and practices accordingly. Such nations have trained archaeologists in the full-range of field management skills in order to ensure they provide the primary personnel for all aspects of archaeological fieldwork.

Such professionals, often called Cultural Resource Management Experts, conduct the vast majority of archaeological research, survey, and excavations, in compliance with the law. In Ethiopia, there is not a single cultural resource management team ready to respond to emerging destruction of the multiple sites currently threatened. Again, this reflects the archaic model the ARCCH continues to rely upon.

Ge’ez inscription on boulder at Bete Giyorgis, Aksum

The majority of academic institutions still offering archaeological courses, no longer conduct large-scale archaeological projects. In developed nations, well over 90 percent of all heritage-management-related issues or archaeological field work is managed by Cultural Resource Management Teams  (CRMT) or companies, hired as the professionals, to survey, excavate, preserve, conserve, and curate artifacts from within archaeological or heritage contexts.

These professionals receive one or more Master’s degrees in specialized fields, with very few holding a PhD. Daily these CRMT are in the field, surveying, recording, identifying new sites, and managing excavations. A professional Cultural Resource Management Team will have multiple years of combined, comprehensive field experience, the newest equipment, higher levels of expertise, and financial resources far more than most universities.

Academic PhDs, comparatively, have far less field experience or expertise, and yet, the ARCCH has relied solely upon such academic professionals. Tragically, as a result, the vast majority of heritage or archaeological research conducted in Ethiopia over the last 50 to 60 years has focused almost exclusively upon externally driven agendas with questions, hypothesis, theories, or data sets derived from ‘Eurocentric’ models.

Most current archaeology and heritage projects currently conducted in Ethiopia are not asking or researching Ethiopian-based questions. They focus upon trade from southern Arabia, influences from Sudan or Nubia, Jewish roots in the Beta Israel, etc. While these projects have scholarly merit, they fail to benefit Ethiopian identity formation or add to the discourse so urgently needed today.

Minimal enagagement

Additionally, such projects in Ethiopia have primarily benefited North American or European archaeologists with recent PhDs and very limited field experience or excavation management skills and therefore little capacity, time our resources to train Ethiopian counterparts. Consequently, even the few, field-trained, Ethiopian archaeologist working with these teams have had minimal engagement with proper, current field management skills, including comprehensive archaeological survey, data recovery planning or analysis, or full publications of excavations, let alone the development of critical, applicable theories appropriate for Ethiopia’s and Africa’s unique data sets.

The ARCCH’s heavy-reliance on academic institutions indicates a tremendous ignorance of the shifts in the nature of global archaeological work and practices over the last four decades. As a result, Ethiopia lags far behind the majority of African and other developing nations in trained professionals across all fields related to heritage, cultural resource management, conservation, and tourism development.

Ethiopia lags far behind the majority of African nations

This is not to say Ethiopian institutions should not partner with academic or other institutions. Many such institutions are critical to the continued training of cultural resource experts. Indeed, outside projects may provide the critical next-steps for research partnerships with Ethiopian archaeologists and other heritage experts in conducting full-scale field-schools and training for local university students.

Universities will also often have very specialized personnel and laboratories to facilitate high-end research questions that cultural resource professionals are not interested in. It is, however, this exclusive reliance upon such academic partnerships which has severely limited and prevented Ethiopia from progressing toward its fuller potentials.

Professional partnerships and collaborations are the critical next-step for Ethiopia to take its rightful place among the histories of the world. Any given partnership or collaboration, however, must also be based upon a framework of mutual benefit. No longer can the current, obsolete frameworks within the ARCCH and other agencies dictate or obstruct proper research potentials, nor untrained personnel continue to mismanage Ethiopia’s priceless heritage.

Damaged manuscript at Bete Abba Libanos, Lalibela

Entire agencies and even ministries related to cultures, heritage management, archaeology and research, and tourism need to be evaluated and overhauled. Any research granting agency needs to be led and managed by competent, properly-trained professionals who seek to foster positive growth in all segments of the heritage, cultural, tourism, hospitality sectors. This is all the more critical in ensuring Ethiopian scholars are given opportunity and the skill sets necessary to begin to lead and manage their own heritage.

Additionally, any and all heritage-related research projects, whether directed or managed by local or foreign-funded institutions or agencies, concurrently must contain research agendas specifically designed to take into consideration the full-range of stakeholders in the project area to include the broader social interests and concerns within the community.

Principal stakeholders and/or primary custodians of specific heritages, cultural/religious landscapes, or archaeological-geological contexts need to be integral partners in the planning and implementation of any given project. Every project must work toward equipping, training, and employing members from among the principal stakeholders in the theory and practice of all aspects of research from initial inception to final publications, and in the utilization of equipment, tools, data recovery and recording, and archaeological excavation techniques and skills.

The primary focus of heritage-related research must, therefore, focus on training and equipping local field experts, not solely the needs of external academics. This must be accomplished in relationship with the the principal stakeholders and/or primary custodians of heritage based upon ‘values-led archaeology’.

Professional partnerships and collaborations are critical next-step

A careful evaluation of differing values and perspectives of specific places, particular landscapes, or religious, cultural or heritage sites, must take into consideration alongside the specific interests and felt-needs of local residence, the broader community, the nation, and global concerns. Consultation and collaboration must be integral components of any research and must be acknowledged and balanced alongside the larger academics needs and incorporated within the research design or model.

It is hoped that with the introduction of new, evidence-based policies across the political landscape, heritage and tourism potentials will not be given a back seat to other forms or practices of development. Ethiopia sits atop a mountain of heritage gold, but has until now, been content with the paltry copper coins it gains from its few intrepid tourists and fewer still, scholars willing to fight the bureaucracies of unqualified or corrupt political appointees.

By properly utilizing professionals across the heritage and tourism fields, Ethiopia can drive economic, social, and ecological discourse that will positively impact  its future. Past failures can quickly be reversed and Ethiopia can take its rightful place on the world heritage stage as a world-class destination for both tourism and cultural and archaeological research.

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Main photo: Washa Mikael roch-hewn church; near Addis Ababa; 2016; William Davison

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

The opinions are the author’s and are no reflection of the views of the website. However, Ethiopia Insight is responsible for factual errors.

About the author

Samuel C. Walker

Samuel, an archaeologist raised in East Africa, seeks to create an Afrocentric historical narrative. His 27 years of research in the Middle East, Western Pacific and Ethiopia inform his broad worldview.

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2 Comments

  • Archeology can play a vital role in the current Medemer journey.
    Connecting the dots between Tiya stone monument in the south, Debre Libanos, Axum, the mysterious Barara, Harer, Debre Bizen will create the conditions for a positive vision of history that emphasizes the ancient common destiny of Ethiopians.