AMMAN—A prominent theme among presentations scheduled for a major international conference on the archaeology of Jordan, being held in Florence, Italy, this month, is the growth of projects that engage local communities in the preservation of ancient sites.
The model for this kind of initiative is the Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project, established in 2014 by the American Center of Oriental Research, in Amman, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development.
The project’s goal is “to enable the country and its people to protect and preserve sites for their own benefit,” says Nizar al-Adarbeh, the “chief of party,” or field manager, for the project, known as SCHEP.
“It’s important in our field to balance preservation and economic development, and to have communities be a key partner in this process,” al-Adarbeh said.
Jordan has an abundance of ancient sites, from prehistory to the Ottoman period, and while some—like the vast Nabataean site of Petra in the south of the country—are spectacular tourist destinations, many others have yet to fulfil their potential as cultural and economic assets. Mega-Jordan, an online database that is the nearest thing to a comprehensive inventory of ancient sites in Jordan, lists 14,429 archaeological sites in the country.
“We selected nine different sites for the project,” al-Adarbeh said. “And we developed a different approach at each site. Now we are synthesizing the results, and from this we hope to create a customizable model that can be adapted.”
Community engagement means training people who live near ancient sites in occupations related to preserving their local heritage that can—directly or indirectly, permanently or part-time—lead to employment. For example, site stewards can protect and maintain the physical fabric of sites, in addition to providing specific knowledge about a site’s history and significance. Al-Adarbeh estimated that altogether a few hundred people have permanent full-time jobs as a result of the project.
Of SCHEP’s nine projects, the flagship is a site in the north of the country called Umm el-Jimal, within sight of the Syrian border. Umm el-Jimal has been inhabited—though not continuously—for about 2,000 years. A modern town has grown beside the ancient site, and there is a refugee camp nearby.
An American archaeologist, Bert de Vries, has worked at the ancient site of Umm el-Jimal for more than 40 years—first in excavating and recording the site, more recently in developing it for community engagement, education and cultural tourism. It is a huge site of more than 800 by 600 meters, with the remains of buildings from a number of eras built with blocks of a distinctive black basalt. An earthquake in the eighth century destroyed most of the buildings, and the site remained mostly uninhabited for about 1,000 years, until Bedouin and other groups settled there in the nineteenth century.
As part of the community engagement at the site, museum-style interpretive signs have been installed providing historical information, walking trails have been created, and a visitors’ center and gift shop (selling handicrafts made from the local basalt) have opened, run by a local cooperative called Hand by Hand Heritage. Local people have been trained in excavation, conservation, cultural resource management and other skills (including masonry and surveying). Umm el-Jimal is applying for Unesco World Heritage Site status.
At an event at the site for stakeholders in the project, held in December 2018 to mark the completion of the first stage of the site’s development, Hassan Fahed al-Rahaibeh, the mayor of the modern town of Umm el-Jamal, acknowledged frankly in his public remarks that until the community-engagement project began its work there, “we did not value this ancient site.”
“Municipalities are a key to our success,” said Nizar al-Adarbeh. “When we say local community, we mean the local baladiyya (municipality), local businesses, schools and universities. It is a collective effort.”
“We are a small-scale project for USAID,” al-Adarbeh said. “But a small-scale project can have an economic multiplier effect.”
Community engagement as an aspect of the archaeological profession has been developing since about the beginning of the century, according to Adnan Shiyyab, president of the School of Archaeology and Tourism at the University of Jordan, in Amman.
“In this faculty we have three departments: archaeology, tourism and cultural resource management. Archaeology is very important in our country: Our department was established in the same year as the University of Jordan itself—1962. But the tourism department was established only in 2010, and cultural resource management is a completely new department,” he said.
“Ninety percent of our tourism [to Jordan] is cultural, archaeological tourism,” Shiyyab said.
Nada al-Rawabdeh, dean of the School of Archaeology and Tourism at the University of Jordan, described SCHEP as “a beautiful project,” but said she wished it would take more input from university archaeology departments.
“They need to connect with universities,” al-Rawabdeh said. “We dig in these places, and we know their needs. All of our faculty members are qualified.”
One of the pioneers of community engagement in archaeology, Maria Elena Ronza of Andrews University, in Michigan, said in an article in the Jordan Times that the approach was a response to the experience of decades in which “fenced inaccessible archaeological sites have alienated communities from their own heritage, their own past and history.”
Ronza is scheduled to present a paper on community engagement in archaeology as a means of building social capital at the meeting in Italy later this month. The 14th International Conference on the History and Archaeology of Jordan will be held in Florence from January 21 to 25.
The project at Umm el-Jimal may hold lessons not only for Jordan, however, but for other sites in Arab countries, most of which are rich in relics of their complex history.