Archaeologists Blast Hasty World Heritage Listings

How to manage the world?s myriad archaeological World Heritage

Published on 18 April 2012

Author(s): National Geographic Traveler/Jonathan Tourtellot

Type:  News

One of the most significant global committees that you never heard of summoned a couple of hundred experts to the island of Menorca, Spain last week.

The meeting involved politics, the remnants of great civilizations, human catastrophes, architectural triumphs, religious works of art and architecture, use of tourism, the rise and fall of empires, and did we say politics?

The International Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management, or ICAHM, hosted its first conference on how to manage the world’s myriad archaeological World Heritage sites. This wildly varied array of places encompasses many of the most celebrated sites of human cultural accomplishment and catastrophe—everything from the pyramids and Roman fortifications to Mongol-era tombs and prehistoric rock art. ICAHM’s key job is to advise the World Heritage Committee about new sites proposed for the famous list. I attended as a guest of the Congress, which paid for my travel.

Right at the outset, ICAHM co-president Dr. Willem J.H. Willems of Leiden, Netherlands, put the core issue on the table. “Archaeology is the study of the past,” he said in his April 9 keynote, but “the past doesn’t exist anymore. Heritage is about the use of the past in the present.” And that’s where it gets interesting. And risky.

Too many countries are rushing to use the past—their heritage sites—for present purposes. Willems sharply criticized the way that sites are proposed and awarded World Heritage inscription. According to the World Heritage Convention, an international treaty, sites should be awarded a place on the list based on solid scientific and academic reasoning. Not happening, said Willems. The World Heritage Committee has been approving too many applications based on economic and “radically political” expediency.

Archaeologists inspect a talayotan ancient watchtoweron the island of Menorca, Spain. Photo- Jonathan Tourtellot.jpg
Archaeologists inspect a talayot—an ancient watchtower—on the island of Menorca, Spain. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

For most countries, World Heritage status is a hotly desired prize. A background note may be necessary for some of the American audience here, where a myth prevails that a World Heritage listing means giving up sovereignty to UNESCO. In fact, World Heritage inscription simply means your country gets the sites that it requests “inscribed” on the World Heritage list. The conditions are that the sites are of “outstanding universal value” and that you take good care of them. If you don’t, the worst UNESCO can do is propose removal from the list.

Most countries, especially impoverished developing nations, are eager to put their greatest natural and cultural places on the list. Why? Prestige in part, national pride in part, yes, but also that modern vein of gold: tourism! An inscription puts you on the travel map.

Tourism Unleashed

When it comes to historic and archaeological sites, though, a blind grab for tourism is playing with fire. Without care, “loved-to-death” syndrome is a real threat. Listen to what ICAHM’s other co-president, Dr. Douglas Comer of Baltimore, Maryland, had to say about one ancient site he knows well: Petra, Jordan. Once such a site is damaged, he stressed, the physical archaeological record is gone forever.

“Petra had about 45,000 visitors in 1985,” Comer told the meeting. “It’s now close to 800,000.” Tourism-related construction at Petra destroyed Nabataean terra cotta pipes more than 2,000 years old. The sandstone seats in the Theatre have survived two millennia, but in the past two decades so many tourists have sat on them that they have worn away the stonemasons’ marks. History wiped by butts. Overall, abrasion from visitor traffic has removed well over a foot of sandstone from the interior of Petra’s most famous monument, Al-Khazna, seen as the repository of the Holy Grail in an Indiana Jones movie.

Development at nearby Wadi Musa created impermeable pavement, which in turn floods sandstone with too much water and erodes it. Donkeys carrying tourists gradually destroyed the ancient Nabataean steps. The practice has been stopped—too late for the steps. In a common pattern, USAID and others have put over $30 million toward supporting tourism to Jordan, but comparatively little has gone to preservation.

And those are the problems at just one site!

The archaeologists were not calling for an end to tourism—not at all. They want us to share the thrill and knowledge of these places. But like any predictable flood, the torrent of tourists needs careful control and planning. Comer called for a requirement that site applications include a credible “best management practices” plan—tourism impacts included—and that inscriptions be made provisional, becoming permanent after convincingly long-term demonstration of those best practices.

That takes us back to Willems’s complaint with the World Heritage Committee’s performance over the past few years: “In 44 percent of the cases, the Committee proceeded to inscribe sites on the World Heritage List that in the judgment of the advisory bodies had not met the requirements for inscription.” He called it “extreme disregard of expert advice.” In his view, these newly listed sites are ignoring the speed limit and heading for Dead Man’s Curve.

Willems doesn’t say these sites are unworthy of inscription, just that they’re not properly assessed, protected, and ready for the attention inscription could bring. Some of the problem derives from the legitimate need to rectify a Eurocentric tilt in the initial inscriptions. But that can mean a rush to list places that are not ready. Especially egregious was the case of the Preah Vihear Temple on the disputed Cambodian-Thai border. In 2008 the Committee granted Cambodia’s application over Thai and expert objections, sparking a border conflict. “Now these people are shooting each other!” says Willems.

I asked him for some other examples of not-ready-for-prime-time World Heritage inscriptions. He cited Burkina Faso’s Loropéni, a 1,000-year-old gold-trade site, rushed to approval to help a desperately poor West African country get some tourism revenue, but without satisfactory study. The Kushite ruins in Sudan’s Island of Meroe met “minimum requirements for nothing” except Sudan’s need for prestige. Wadi Rum in Jordan received an inscription despite too many tourists without adequate planning or control.

Not all talks criticized the process. Much of the conference consisted of the specialists reporting to each other. It’s arcane but often fascinating stuff: Laser scanning industrial heritage sites in Wales; community action at El Tajin in Veracruz, Mexico; protecting the hominid footprints at Laetoli, Tanzania; World Heritage candidacy for ancient stone spheres in Costa Rica; the fate of heritage sites in post-conflict Libya; how to protect Peru’s Caral ruins—old as the Egyptian pyramids.

Archaeological Menorca

The island of Menorca chose to host this conference in part so as to show off their own cultural heritage, beginning with the conference venue, the impressively restored Theatre Principal in old town Mahon, Menorca’s capital. The oldest opera house in Spain, this red plush, 1829 creation has 5 stories of box-seats—more suited to a production of La Dolores than a quasi-academic conference.

But what really surprised me about the island was the proliferation of megalithic ruins, many of them from the 3,000-year-old Talayotic Culture, unique to Menorca. Their iconic talayots, fat cylindrical stone watchtowers, sit atop numerous knolls and hills all over the island. Even more dramatic are the T-shaped taula stones, looking like detached bits of Stonehenge. Add dolmens, communal tombs, barrows, Roman constructions, and entire neolithic villages, and you’re in antiquity heaven. “There’s hardly a farm on Menorca without a monument,” someone had observed.

Early one morning local archaeologist Margarita Orfila Pons took four of us to a two-level talayot off the tourist trail. As the group climbed it, someone dislodged a stone, which rolled a few feet down the side of the structure and came to rest. No big deal. But it was easy to see what would happen to the tower if 100,000 people a year were climbing it, decade after decade.

Later we joined the other attendees touring the island’s archaeological gems, including an elaborate lunch in the attractive town of Ciutadella. Touring the ruins with two busloads of archaeologists and students can be taxing, though. After hearing hours of on-site technical descriptions of sandstone this and limestone that, even the pros’ attentions were flagging.

Academia, Management, and Money

At the top of this post I called ICAHM significant. That doesn’t necessarily mean effective. Some presentations do have practical value, providing tools and ideas for taking better care of these sites, for involving local people, for engaging tourists. Others lean more toward the academic and theoretical, with titles like “Architecture and Urban Structure in Hierapolis: An Archaeological Perspective,” “Formal Educational Curricula and Cultural Heritage,” and “Insularity [and] Interaction with Foreign and Social Complexity.” Focusing on one of these after a two-hour Spanish lunch would have called for a constant IV flow of espresso. Maybe that’s why I didn’t see enough actionable propositions or recommendations. Rather little emphasis on the “M” in ICAHM.

I believe the pressures afflicting our great cultural sites demand a greater sense of urgency. The 2006 NatGeo survey of World Heritage destination stewardship revealed drastically differing levels of success in supporting cultural sites and the visitor experiences, ranging from the well-managed Alhambra and Granada in Spain to the grossly overtrafficked, underexplained Angkor and its Siem Reap gateway town.

The extent to which ICAHM is effective will depend on participants’ ability to focus on action and not just academic theory. One late-session speaker, after he was done lambasting the inscription and management of World Heritage sites in Ethiopia, pointed out that the conference’s earlier “Social Action” set of 15-minute presentations did not live up to their billing. “Social action was mentioned in the last 30 seconds.”

But there’s another, major problem with ICAHM. The scientists are expected to do all this work for free.

This was the third of Comer’s calls to action: Get support. In recent decades we have seen millions of dollars spent to attract tourists, and pennies to protect what they travel to see.

Judging from what I’ve seen this week, ICAHM knows it has a long way to go, as does the World Heritage program, as do we all. Otherwise the tangible story of our species crumbles, one dislodged stone at a time, and with it, the knowledge of who we are.

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