Rethinking Archaeology: The Role of Archaeologists in Heritage Management, Spatial Planning and Design

by Linda Bjerketvedt

This essay was originally written as the finalisation of the course Transformations: Meeting Designers of the Master programme Heritage Studies. The author participated as an elective student in this course. 

1.      Introduction

Archaeological remains – the material traces of the past – are considered finite and non-renewable resources that are constantly under threat (Elia 1997: 85). The discipline itself is a form of destruction and intervention because excavation is an irreversible process after which the context is lost. Most of the work conducted by archaeologists aims to preserve the past not only for the present, but also for future generations (Holtorf 2014). Archaeological heritage management in Europe is predominately concerned with preservation and conservation (Högberg et al. 2017: 639) to such an extent that archaeology is usually isolated from the dynamics of development (Janssen et al. 2014: 2).

In this personal essay, I wish to reflect on my future role as an archaeologist in heritage management. Through the ‘Transformations’ course, I have seen many ways in which recent heritage can be combined with developments. Building on those observations, I wish to critically discuss how archaeology can strengthen its own position within heritage management and spatial planning. I want to focus on how archaeological sites and material are and can be used after an excavation in order to become relevant and useful. My profession is largely guided (and restricted) by legislation, which will be discussed alongside the concept of authenticity. If archaeologists rethink their position, archaeology as a discipline can become far more nuanced and connected with wider societal developments.

2.     Theoretical background

2.1.  Legislation and policies

The first international conventions dealing with the protection of archaeological heritage were conceived in the post-war years.  During this time, rapid economic development caused destruction of archaeological sites and required the international scientific community to react (Demoule 2012: 612). The Venice Charter of 1964 provided global guidelines for heritage conservation and management and resulted in the creation of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS 1965). Except for a short article dealing with archaeological excavations, archaeology was largely absent from this charter. The 1990 Lausanne Charter, developed by the International Scientific Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM), became the first international document dealing exclusively with archaeology (Comer & Willems 2014: 3942). ICHAM remains the only global organization dedicated entirely to archaeological heritage management (Willems 2014a: 110). For European archaeology, the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage of 1992 (Malta Convention) has had the greatest impact. This convention is a legally binding treaty which provides a standard for the management of archaeological resources on a national level (Willems 2014b: 151). The core of the 1992 Malta Convention is that archaeology should be integrated in planning processes, financed by the developers and communicated to the public (ibid).

According to Article 4 of the Malta Convention (Council of Europe 1992), preservation in situ – the conservation of archaeological remains in their original location – should be the first option. This is also appealing to developers, as it may appear to limit the costs of excavation and allows the development to take place (Huisman 2012: 60). Developers are therefore eager to find ways of building on archaeological sites (Davis et al. 2004). Although this type of conservation would require both a thorough understanding of the below-ground environment and monitoring, the Council of Europe members are recommended to develop “their own legislation and administration systems in the preservation field” (Musteață 2015: 16). The impacts of construction on archaeological sites are poorly understood and researched, causing a lack of knowledge in planning processes (Huisman 2012: 61). Some scholars have already criticised whether preservation in situ is a useful method for dealing with archaeological remains, calling it the “central dogma of Western archaeological heritage management” (Williams 2015: 38).

Overall, the different policies and legislations have caused archaeological research and practice to become substantially better integrated with spatial planning and related fields. The incorporation of archaeological resource management with land-use planning is for example visible in the Belvedere strategy from the Netherlands (Janssen et al. 2014). The common approach now is for archaeologists to be involved in the planning process from the start. Most of the treaties make some sort of reference to the future in their overarching aims. This corresponds with the strong ‘conservation ethos’ of archaeology, which seeks to preserve the past for “the benefit of future generations” (Högberg et al. 2017: 639). It is assumed that future generations will value the same tangible and intangible entities as us and that these entities are under threat in the present (Agnew 2006: 1). ‘The future’ remains somewhat vague in archaeological heritage management and has become a popular ‘catch phrase’ (Högberg et al. 2017: 640). Heritage professionals and archaeologists need to consider the risks and opportunities the future may hold and ask two important question: What kind of collective future(s) do we want to shape and create?  And how can our policies and practices in the present change if we consider the future?

2.2. Authenticity in heritage and archaeology

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, authenticity is defined as “the quality of being real or true” (“Authenticity” 2019). The concept of authenticity has been discussed since antiquity – infamously exemplified through the ‘Ship of Theseus’ riddle – and continues to be a debated topic (Myrberg 2004: 152). In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the restoration and conservation movements related to historic buildings and monuments first emerged, authenticity related to the materiality of something being original and unique (Odegaard & Cassman 2014: 702). Pioneers such as Eugène
Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc called for a systematic approach which required critical analysis, solid documentation and an understanding of the grammar of architecture (Viollet-le-Duc 1875: 64). For Viollet-le-Duc, originality came from re-establishing a structure to “a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given moment” (Viollet-le-Duc 1875 [1990]: 195). John Ruskin, a contemporary to and critic of Viollet-le-Duc, saw time as the most important agent in the preservation. The greatest glory and beauty of a building is in its age and the marks left by time (Ruskin 1904).

Despite their opposing views, both Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin were concerned with the innate value of materials. This continues to frame the archaeological heritage discourse today, perhaps because authenticity is also closely linked with authority and power (Willems 2014a: 107). We may even speak of different ‘regimes of value’ which acquire universality through the authority of credible institutions (Jones 2009: 135). In general, the authenticity of archaeological remains is rooted in their material qualities. The guiding principle has been to conserve and preserve rather than to restore and reconstruct (Holtorf & Schadla-Hall 1999: 232). If modern modifications are needed, these need to be clearly distinguishable from the old (ibid). This is further reinforced in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (UNESCO 2017, article 86):

In relation to authenticity, the reconstruction of archaeological remains or historic buildings or districts is justifiable only in exceptional circumstances. Reconstruction is acceptable only on the basis of complete and detailed documentation and to no extent on conjecture.

More and more, scholars are seeing authenticity as something that is created and negotiated rather than an attribute or absolute property (Odegaard & Cassman 2014: 703). The intangible aspects of archaeological remains are being recognised as equally, if not more important, for a community’s association with a site than the tangible aspects (Poulios 2010: 180). Because archaeology is a context-dependent discipline, sites and objects will have different meanings “at different times, in different places and to different people” (Odegaard & Cassman 2014: 702). In most cases, however, protected archaeological sites become solitary places frozen in time (Myrberg 2004: 158). The attempt to preserve authenticity breaks the continuity of function and neglects existing living traditions (Poulios 2010: 178). This division is further fuelled by the public and archaeologists often having different perceptions of authenticity (Myrberg 2004: 229). Authenticity is staged in many ways at museums and archaeological sites across the world without the perception of ‘pastness’ being lost (Holtorf 2013: 431). People’s experience with the historic environment (including archaeological remains) is therefore a meaningful engagement with something “possessing the quality of being of the past” (Holtorf 2010: 26-27). Archaeologists need to identify how both the ‘authentic’ and the ‘simulated’ past is experienced and given meaning in contemporary society (Holtorf 2014: 712).

3.     Repurposing archaeological sites

In the light of these theoretical discussions of legislations and authenticity, I would like to turn to two specific case studies which exemplify the issues I see myself dealing with in the future. The examples illustrate a) the role and value of archaeologists in design and spatial planning and b) how archaeological sites can be successfully turned into living spaces rather than ‘dead’ spaces.

Promoting public awareness of archaeological heritage is an important aspect of the Malta Convention. Accordingly, public interest in archaeology has increased as a result of educational actions and public access (Willems 2014b: 151). Improved technology has changed the speed and ways in which information is disseminated. The costs associated with archaeology also need to be legitimised in order to prove the public benefit (ibid). During major development projects in urban settings, a great amount of archaeological material may surface and spark public curiosity. By integrating urban archaeological material into the everyday life, the past is made accessible and visual whilst allowing the inhabitants to engage with these traces. Presenting this material may facilitate a feeling of ‘collective possessiveness’ and promote local identity.

One example is the permanent displays at Rokin metro station in Amsterdam.  In connection with the construction of the Noord/Zuidlijn, archaeological excavations took place for nine years at Damrak and Rokin (Gawronski & Kranendonk). The archaeologists excavated the riverbed of Amstel, which has been the historical ‘artery’ and central axis of Amsterdam (ibid). These investigations were truly unique in a global context and yielded around 700,000 finds (ibid). The enormous quantity (Fig.1) and great variety of finds span several centuries and offer a rare insight into the daily life of Amsterdam. Most of the finds can be classified either as waste dumped in the Amstel or accidentally lost objects (ibid).



Fig 1. The number of archaeological finds after one week of excavation at Damrak.

Almost 9,500 of the archaeological objects are presented as artwork in two displays at the entrances of Rokin station, both following the incline of the escalators. Using ‘city’ as a theme, the British/French artists Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel together with the Department of Monuments and Archaeology (MenA) have attempted to showcase “a dialogue between art and archaeology” (“The Rokin displays”). Finds were arranged according to ten functional categories, including science, transport, craft, trade, recreation, food consumption, personal artefacts and several more (Fig.2).

fig. 2.

Titled ‘Below the Surface’, the project has also produced a documentary, a photo catalogue (“Stuff”) and an accompanying webpage which functions as a database. The data is suitable both for academics doing research and for the public, who can interactively create their own displays. In this case, archaeology was incorporated into the art program of the metro stations and utilised in several ways to convey the history of Amsterdam to different people. Commuters and travellers are faced with different layers of ‘pastness’ and encouraged to reflect on the meaning of objects. Terms such as waste and stuff are perceived differently once placed in a museum-like display (Fig.3). In combination with ‘authentic’ archaeological objects, the earliest objects from the 21st century gain value and challenge our notion of authenticity.

Fig. 3. The displays at Rokin after completion. Photo by Jorrit ‘t Hoen,

In the quest of preserving the authenticity of fabric, current archaeological practice often fails to facilitate the continuity of function of a site (Poulios 2010: 179). A living heritage site is defined both by continuity and change in relation to a community: it is not an idealised past frozen in time (ibid: 175). The old ruins of Hamar Cathedral in Norway exemplify some issues regarding the idea of a living heritage site. Once the seat of the Catholic diocese of Hamar, the ruins are remnants of what used to be the religious centre of Eastern Norway (Hølmebakk 2018).  Erected between 1152 and 1200, the cathedral was constructed in Romanesque style with local limestone (“Bare ruinene igjen” 2014). After the reformation in 1536/37, the site lost its power and eventually fell into ruin (“Vernebygget 20 år” 2018). It was not until the 1850s that some of the remains were excavated, restored and protected by antiquarians (Hølmebakk 2018, Fig.4). Acid rain and frost weathering continued to cause substantial damage to the structure, accelerating the decay (“Vernebygget 20 år” 2018).

Fig. 4. The ruins of Hamar Cathedral. Date and photographer unknown.

The idea to construct a protective structure over the ruins led the Directorate for Cultural Heritage to announce an architectural design competition in 1987 (ibid). In 1998, the monumental glass construction of the winning design was finished. The shape of the so-called ‘glass cathedral’ mimics the architecture of the original cathedral and the different elevations of its surroundings (“Vernebygg for Hamar Domkirkeruiner” 2018). By using primarily glass, the architects wanted to blur the lines between inside and outside whilst allowing the landscape to play a part in the architecture (Hølmebakk 2018, Fig.5). Depending on weather and season, the ruins are perceived differently both inside and outside the glass structure (Fig.6). The ruins of the cathedral have now come to life again as a place for different activities, including educational lectures, concerts and theatre performances (“Vernebygget 20 år” 2018). Its new status as an ecumenical church has resulted in it becoming one of the most popular wedding venues of Norway (ibid).

According to the Directorate for Cultural Heritage, the material authenticity of the ruins was the main incentive for preservation (ibid). The design could be classified as a difference transformation as defined by Braae (2015: 293) because it creates a strong division between past and present. Some critics wanted a more ‘Ruskinian’ approach by simply letting the ruins decay over time (Norberg-Schulz 2018). More than ever, the ruins are frozen in time, aimed to be preserved for the foreseeable future, but for how long? Especially the local population felt side-tracked in their wishes and bereaved of their landmark (Oseberg Pedersen 2008: 52). At the same time, the ‘glass cathedral’ can be argued to be a continuity transformation (Braae 2015: 297) because the architecture connects the past with the future in an unintentional way. The architect’s idea of reconstructing the shape of the old cathedral was first and foremost a material consideration rather than a consideration of practices. The reuse of the cathedral for religious purposes is therefore a side-effect of its sheltered construction which has restored meaning and atmosphere to the site.

Fig. 5 and 6. Impressions of the ‘glass cathedral’ in Hamar.

4.     A future and place for an archaeologist

As a future archaeologist working in a governmental department or similar field, some would argue that I carry a large responsibility as a ‘steward of the past’. My decisions will first and foremost be governed by a legal framework and many regulations. In urban conservation, it has already been recognised that the creation of a ‘walled precinct’ around heritage does not protect it from external forces for eternity (Bandarin 2015: 2). This is certainly the case for archaeology, which traditionally has taken on a self-appointed and solitary role as the caretaker of the past (Atalay et al. 2016: 9). I believe archaeology can benefit largely from the debates that are taking place in heritage studies. Recent scholarship in heritage theory focuses largely on how different groups perceive and participate with their environments, highlighting the fact that values are created and subject to change (Riesto 2016: 121). During the different excursions of the ‘Transformations course’, we encountered ways in which heritage in various contexts (urban, historic, residential, industrial etc) can be transformed. I was particularly impressed with the new market hall in Ghent and the way the building provides a modern upgrade of the historic centre whilst respecting the protected buildings in the surroundings. Although it has caused some controversy among the residents of Ghent, the urban space has been given new value. This particular spatial transformation can serve as inspiration for archaeological sites to add value to an urban and historic context.

My case studies illustrate the various scales of archaeology I will be working with, ranging from large structures and sites to small artefacts. Both examples illustrate the benefits of a close integration of archaeologists, architects, designers and spatial planners. They are attempts at making archaeology relevant, particularly to the wider public. The archaeological record is increasingly disappearing, despite our strong efforts at prevention. Our participation in Giethoorn was primarily aimed to find ways of relieving the pressures of tourism on the village. This is naturally also a key issue in the management of archaeological sites, which are increasingly suffering from overtourism and its consequences. The question is: what is the purpose of protecting sites if they still do not remain ‘safe’ from external factors? I want to work on developing solutions that highlight archaeology as an asset and that create meaningful encounters with the past for different communities. There needs to be a change to the archaeological heritage discourse, starting at the local level.

5. Concluding remarks

Archaeologists face a difficult challenge in trying to create balance between continuity and change in the modern world. Legislation and regulations can only do so much to protect the monuments; the rest is the work of the public. Without public awareness of the value of heritage and archaeology, archaeologists like myself cannot justify the costs associated with our profession. This requires us to find alternative ways of dealing with the material and its authenticity. I want to be inclusive of different perceptions of authenticity, moving beyond the traditional notions currently prevailing in archaeology. We can never access the ‘true’ past, but we can look at how the past is perceived. I have highlighted some of the issues that I will encounter in my future profession, many of which I have become aware of during the ‘Transformations’ course. More than anything, it has taught me new ways of thinking, leaving me better equipped to make qualified decisions.

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