The Question of Cultural Ownership and Cultural Heritage on Madaba’s West Acropolis
By: Debra Foran, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies
Wilfrid Laurier University
The question of who owns the past is a difficult one to address. There are often multiple stake-holders and the notion of a site’s importance for a global cultural heritage must be considered. But what happens when the local community, residing on and near a site, do not feel a sense of ownership for the ancient remains that are being unearthed? This appears to be the case in the modern city of Madaba where the Tell Madaba Archaeological Project has been excavating on the city’s West Acropolis for the past 15 years (figure 1). The lack of a sense of ownership of these ancient remains has resulted in the excavation site being damaged and vandalized.
The local residents of Madaba are usually perplexed when I tell them that I direct a project that is investigating Madaba’s archaeological history. They are unaware that we have been unearthing the remains of their city, right in the centre of town, for over 15 years! And those who do know who we are and what we are doing seem to be uninterested in what we have discovered or have strange misconceptions about the nature of the excavated remains. I maintain that this indifference stems from a lack of “ownership.” The modern inhabitants of Madaba seem to feel no connection with the city’s ancient remains.
The modern city of Madaba has a population of approximately 60,000, with a significant percentage of this population being Christian. The city is essentially a bedroom community, where the majority of its inhabitants actually work in Amman and commute to and from the city every day. Like most suburbs, it is continuously expanding, obviously posing a significant threat to the archaeological remains in the city. In addition, the city has a booming tourism industry which has prompted the construction of numerous hotels, further contributing to the deterioration of the ancient city of Madaba.
Modern Madaba is the result of the reoccupation of the site by Christian Bedouin tribes from Kerak in the late 19th century. These new inhabitants, the descendants of whom still reside in the city today, first established themselves in a series of caves in the valley opposite the ancient mound. This initial settlement was followed by the construction of more permanent homes on top of the Late Byzantine ruins on the mound itself. Many of the structures built by Madaba’s most recent inhabitants incorporated the ancient structures and mosaics into their foundations, in a way preserving these remains. This resettlement prompted archaeological research in Madaba and is what allowed the discoveries of the 20th century.
The Tell Madaba Archaeological Project has, since 1996, conducted systematic excavations on Madaba’s acropolis. The project’s 14th season of excavation on the West Acropolis was completed in 2012 and 11 separated occupation phases have been identified. These remains reflect Mādabā’s waxing and waning fortunes as a regional center over the past 5000 years. Although the plot of land occupied by these remains was initially owned by a number of private citizens, it was purchased by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan in 2000, thus ensuring our continued work at the site.
At this moment, the site remains closed to the public. We have done a substantial amount of consolidation work in order to preserve the structures that we have uncovered. We have also attempted to protect the mosaics by covering them with sand and gravel. Although there is signage on the site indicating the nature of these remains, the site is far from being “presentable.” Because our excavations exposed Madaba’s entire occupation history, there are several very deep trenches on the site that pose a significant danger to anyone wanting to explore the ruins (figure 2). As a result, we have erected a fence and a fieldstone wall to prevent access.
It has always been our goal to develop Madaba’s West Acropolis into a public archaeological park that would benefit the local community. We envisage a public space with cultural and recreational facilities that could be used by all members of the local community, including the Department of Antiquities, local schools, religious groups, the municipal government, and community organizations, as well as foreign tourists and archaeologists. Apart from the massive amount of funding that this type of project would require, it is also necessitates the active participation and cooperation of the local community.
Over the past 15 years, there have many instances of destruction and vandalism on the West Acropolis (figure 3). Normally, when we returned to Madaba at the beginning of the field season, the site would be littered with garbage. There have also been clear instances of vandalism and intentional destruction. This disregard for the ancient remains and the ease with which Madaba’s inhabitants unintentionally destroyed the artefacts and structures on the site is ultimately the result of a “disconnection” with these remains. Our neighbours seem to see no value (whether historical, social, religious, or economic) in these ancient structures and artefacts. This lack of “ownership” has led to a complete disregard for the remains on the West Acropolis. The younger members of Madaba’s society use the site to commit acts of vandalism and to partake in activities disapproved of by their parents. Despite several attempts to discourage or prevent people from illegally accessing the site, our walls and fences continue to be torn down.
So, how do we create a sense of “ownership” amongst a very diverse group of people (Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, Jordanians and Palestinians). As has been proven in many cases, by developing partnerships with the local community, modern residents of these ancient sites will take an active interest in the archaeological remains and feel the need to protect them and, in essence, create a sense of “ownership.”
My hope is that if we involve the local community in every aspect of the development of the West Acropolis into a public park, they will recognize the value of these remains, will feel a sense of “ownership” towards them, and will want to protect and preserve them. The best way to do this is by initiating an education outreach program that engages local school children from every facet of Madaba’s society. Once some preliminary work has been done on the site to clean it up, I would like to invite members of all the different groups and families in Madaba to visit the site and demonstrate to them its potential as a public recreational space that will benefit the residents of Madaba.
So then whose city is this? It is our city. It belongs to all the people of Madaba, regardless of religious, economic, social, or family background. It also belongs, to a certain extent, to the thousands of tourists who flock to the city every year. Archaeological research has been an integral part of the fabric of the modern city of Madaba since its inception. So, in a way, it belongs to us, the people (students, staff, professors, explorers, etc.) who have been busy uncovering and studying Madaba’s occupation history for the past century. It is indeed our city and we are all responsible for its preservation.
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