Making Sense of Science and Cultural Heritage: Requirements and Rationale in the Eritrean Context

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The interaction between science and cultural heritage has taken great steps over the past several decades. The field of cultural heritage generally includes all the tangible and intangible aspects of humanity´s past and present cultural amenities. The material representation of the past has always been central to understanding human history from a number of perspectives. Conjectures and hypotheses may, to some extent, help define past trajectories.

However, much of what we understand about the human past is the result of different lines of scientific analysis revolving around specific archaeological questions. While archaeology may be categorized as a field in the humanities, the nature of questions it seeks to answer requires interactions with and contributions from different disciplines. In fact, it is a misconception to assume that archaeological questions are only tackled from a humanistic perspective. In an attempt to outline how archaeological science needs to be seen as a holistic discipline, today´s “Cultural Heritage“ column highlights the contribution of other disciplines to different archaeological, paleontological, and paleo-anthropological projects in Eritrea.

Cultural heritage has profited greatly from the scientific explosion of recent years. The analytical techniques applied by archaeologists and conservation scientists (i.e. professionals focused on the conservation of heritage objects) are also used in earth sciences, chemistry, physics, biology, and engineering. Analytical approaches from earth and life sciences are useful to addressing questions of the source of materials in the past, on one hand, and meeting the technical requirements for the conservation of monuments and artwork, on the other. The contribution from mineralogy, molecular biology, analytical chemistry, and other sciences to solving challenges in the cultural heritage sector is massive. Their contributions need to be fully recognized in order to lay the basis for an interdisciplinary platform.

Eritrea´s rich cultural heritage has become common knowledge among researchers and laypeople alike. Following independence, archaeological projects recovered rich evidence dating back to different time periods, including prehistory, proto-history, the historical period, and medieval times. Many of these research projects encompassed geological contexts bearing information on human and mammalian evolution and helped in improving understanding of settlement patterns along the Red Sea, Danakil Depression, and further into the interior of the eastern escarpment, central highlands, and western lowlands of Eritrea. Research projects in the Danakil Depression of Eritrea have sought to understand human and mammalian evolution, as well as patterns of human adaptation.

A glance at these projects confirms their quest for scientific explanations and use of a number of different methodologies. During the past two decades, it has become common to use an interdisciplinary framework in the scientific reconstruction of past geological and ecological processes in the field. A number of activities, from dating to the virtual reconstruction of the anatomy and morphology of fossil mammalian and hominid (human-like) specimens, clearly demonstrate that cutting edge analytical approaches are contributing to our understanding of Eritrean prehistory.

The movement patterns and demographic structure of prehistoric groups that inhabited present-day Eritrea require better understanding. Stone tools have become a good reference for understanding the migration and dispersion of human groups in the past. Understanding the geological sources of raw materials used for tool making is significant to tracking how people utilized and conquered the Red Sea coast. This epoch in human history is generating growing interest among scholars and researchers. Better understanding of raw material exchange networks across the Eritrean Red Sea coast, Danakil Depression, adjacent escarpments, the Arabian Peninsula, and Nile Valley is vital. Acquiring geo-chemical data from these materials requires cooperation between geologists, geo-chemists, and archaeologists. Scientific approaches are thus vital to understanding this period of prehistory.

Mineralogical and chemical studies of archaeological pottery illustrate the importance of the physical sciences. Specifically, the physical sciences are vital in the reconstruction of the technology of pottery production and distribution. The northern Horn of Africa’s setting along major geographic and ecological zones led to the flourishing of major centers, particularly during the first millennium BC and the first millennium AD. The extent of exchange between the western lowlands, central highlands, and Red Sea Coast, and their subsequent integration into the wider network of regional exchange, has long been the focus of archaeological research. Multi-analytical scientific approaches can shed light upon exchange networks and relate interregional economic dynamics along the Red Sea and the Nile Valley to the appearance and evolution of complex societies in the northern Horn of Africa between the first millennium BC and the first millennium AD.

The conservation of Eritrea’s monuments and historical buildings is another area where the physical sciences can play a positive role. A comprehensive plan for evaluating the status of monuments and the intervention measures needed to ensure their continuity is crucial for the management of cultural heritage in Eritrea. The preservation, conservation, and possible restoration of historical buildings and outdoor monuments require analytical procedures related to the universal practice of physio-chemical evaluation. Similarly, physio-chemical degradation processes affecting the conservation of parchments and other heritage materials of organic nature housed in museums, monasteries, and archival facilities can also be evaluated using similar analytical procedures.

The hard sciences greatly contribute to addressing cultural heritage challenges. The needs of an interdisciplinary group can only be fully recognized and overcome by developing a scheme that ensures the integration of local expertise. The integration of local experts, including specialists in molecular biology, environmental sciences, engineering, geophysics, geology, and geomorphology, in research projects is crucial.

The involvement of local geologists and experts from the Eritrean Mapping and Information Center in different phases of the Adulis Archaeological Project is one example of how local expertise can be effectively used in joint research projects. More recently, during preparation of the nomination dossier for the Asmara Heritage Project, risk assessment studies involving geophysical prospecting and documentation activities through 3-D laser scanning of the monuments were conducted, bringing together local experts and foreign heritage consultants. These activities offer possibilities to conduct research that addresses various topics associated with cultural heritage. They also help build the capacity of local experts, which can have a positive impact on the sustainable management, conservation, and preservation of cultural heritage. Research about and management of our cultural heritage requires the recognition and utilization of up-to-date scientific developments in the sector.

A column prepared in collaboration with the Eritrea’s culture and sports commission