New Directions in Public Archaeology: A View from Europe and the Middle East

Ann E. Killebrew, Dirk Callebaut, Neil A. Silberman, and Daniel Pletinckx
Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation
Ename, Belgium


The concept of a public archaeology and accountability to broad and multiple public audiences and local communities is beginning to be implemented at an increasing number of archaeological sites worldwide.  Yet since several difficulties—both technical and ethical—arise in the presentation of archaeology to diverse publics on a local and global level, it is necessary to ask several central theoretical questions:

  1. Is it possible to incorporate multiple historical narratives, including controversial issues, in an educational, informative and entertaining manner that takes into account the visible as well as invisible peoples of the past as well as the diversity of the modern local community? 
  2. How or even can the local community benefit from archaeological site presentation to the public and the resulting increase of tourism to a location? 
  3. How do we reconcile the diversity of visions and often conflicting interests of the policy-makers, business men, development corporations, archaeologists and local residents regarding the presentation and development of heritage?  
  4. How do we educate and raise awareness among archaeologists, anthropologists and heritage managers regarding these multi-faceted aspects of the presentation of the past to the public?

In this paper I will describe several experimental attempts to deal with these issues at three sites -- Ename in East Flanders, Belgium, the archaeological site of Megiddo in Israel, and the heritage city of Akko, also in Israel. 

            My first two examples will address the question of how to present multiple perspectives, both chronologically and culturally, at archaeological sites using new multi-media and virtual reality techniques that have been developed at the village of Ename, located in East Flanders, Belgium.  Medieval Ename was established in the tenth century as a strategic border fortress between the Frankish Kingdom and the Holy Roman Empire.  This imperial fortress, its pre-urban settlement and its churches represent only the first chapter of Ename's history.  Later, a Benedictine abbey was constructed on the site, serving as the heart of the small community at Ename.  Following the French Revolution, it fell into ruins.  The excavation of this site began as a purely scientific undertaking, with scientific work continuing now for almost twenty years.  Only gradually did the scope of the project widen to include presenting the results of this project to the general public and the inclusion of local community involvement.

            In an effort to present the Ename story to the pubic, an on-site multimedia installation was developed, consisting of a computer-generated virtual reality image that is superimposed over the archaeological remains on a computer screen, located in front of the actual remains.  The visitor to the site today can see the 10th century fortress and church reconstructed on the screen as he or she looks at the archaeological remains.  By selecting various touch-screen icons, the visitor can trace the development of the site as a Benedictine monastery. 

            A quite different interpretive approach was taken in the local Ename Museum, where the themes of Memory and Community play a central role.  The museum exhibit spans the entire history of the Ename village, up until the present time.  Local members of the community were closely involved with aspects of the exhibit, including providing extensive oral histories of Ename's recent past.  One of the most important elements of the museum presentation is called the "Feast of a Thousand Years" in which 23 characters were chosen to represent a wide selection of human perspectives on Ename's history, ranging from the Neolithic period through the Middle Ages to the present day.  From a social standpoint, they span all walks of life, genders, and professions -- from a medieval farmer's wife, to an abbey stonemason, to a scullery maid to a countess to the abbot of the monastery of Ename, to a 19th century mayor of the nearby municipality of Oudenaarde, to a traveling gypsy fortuneteller who visited Ename shortly before the outbreak of World War II.  Each character is linked to a find from the excavation -- but it is their voices, their emotions and their direct appear to the visitor that weaves together the rich tapestry of local history.

            This method of interpretation is what we call "character-based" interpretation.  We see it as serving a kind of "communal autobiography" of the local inhabitants -- both past and present.  It is a form of interpretation which we hope spurs active associations in the mind of the visitor and will evoke meaningful personal memories.  This kind of archaeological interpretation can encompass the story of all the communities who lived or affected a particular place—whether its members were indigenous peoples, imperial settlers, local or foreign in origin; royal or peasant in standing, stressing multiple histories and interpretations. 

            The applicability of this approach is especially appropriate when we deal with sites which span thousands of years and multiple cultures and peoples, such as at the Middle Eastern tell, with its many superimposed layers of human habitation often spanning millennia.  It provides an opportunity to express the great continuity and the multitude of peoples and pasts which characterize the countries of the Middle East.  A number of tels in Israel have been designated as national parks and have been developed for the public.  The most frequently visited tel with its 200,000 visitors per year is Tel Megiddo.  Twenty superimposed settlements spanning the Neolithic through Hellenistic periods have been excavated and at the adjacent site of Lejjun occupation spans the Roman through British Mandate period, now with a modern kibbutz located on the site.  The archaeological complexity of Megiddo combined with the general poor state of preservation of the archaeological remains presents special difficulties and problems in its interpretation to the public.  Today monumental public structures from the Early Bronze, Late Bronze and Iron Ages are the most visible and frequently visited spots on the tel. 

However there are many periods of time, aspects of human occupation on the tel, and peoples who are ignored or invisible during a visit to the tel.  Present plans being funded and developed by the Nature Protection and National Parks Authority together with the East Flanders Government and the Ename Center in Belgium hope to partially remedy this situation through the use of high-tech on-site interpretation techniques, similar to the installation now in operation at Ename. The first area selected for interpretation is the area of the Iron Age Israelite palace and the later stables constructed on top of the so-called Solomonic palace.  The character-based interpretation will present the significance of the site of Megiddo and the different interpretations of these buildings from a variety of perspectives.  These include the modern archaeologist, the Christian pilgrim, a female Palestinian villager from the nearby, and now non-existent, village of Lejjun, a 19th century Jewish rabbi, a Franciscan friar, an official from the royal Israelite court, and a charioteer from the biblical period, as well as other characters who include generally unrepresented people and perspectives. 

            The use of multi-media virtual reality presentation opens up new avenues of interpretation.  It also allows for periodically changing or updating the interpretation when new information or new perspectives are desired.  It also allows multiple interpretations and viewpoints.  However it should be pointed out that multi-media techniques are not suitable to every site and every situation.  The costs of this type of interpretation can be high, the availability of properly trained personnel to operate and maintain the equipment is essential. This is especially true in less developed regions of the world.  Even at Megiddo, which is located in a country where high tech industries are highly developed, we have encountered a number of difficulties ranging from poorly trained site managers to a fear of anything "technical" among the older staff.   Lastly,  we cannot ignore the dangers involved with the over-popularization and the ease with which archaeological fact can be convincingly mixed with fiction may create a misleading past which appears realistic, thus true, to the public, but one that never existed.   

            Many archaeological and heritage sites today are situated within living communities and cities.   In these situations, issues dealing with local populations and diverse local interests cannot be separated from public presentation and can determine the success or failure of a project.  I would like to bring the heritage city of Akko as my the third example that illustrates the importance of community outreach and the dangers of conflicting interests.  In this living heritage city, we face problems of archaeological interpretation, touristic development and community involvement.  Akko has an especially long history spanning the late 4th millennium until modern times.  It historically served as an important port city during many periods of time and it probably best-known today for its Crusader city, the best preserved in the world.  Many of today's modern residents of Akko reside historic Ottoman period houses constructed on top of the Crusader city -- and many of these residents belong to the poorest sector of Israeli society.  Extensive excavations on both the biblical tel and the Crusader city have revealed especially impressive ruins and the great wealth and prosperity of Akko's past.  Though one of the most interesting heritage cities in the Middle East, due to the political events of the last 50 years that resulted in the displacement of its original inhabitants in 1948, followed by an influx of refugees into the historic quarter, it is a city that has been seriously neglected and under-appreciated.    The result has been a deterioration of both historic and modern structures and declining prosperity of the modern city.  Conflicting visions of how to develop this picturesque town located on the Mediterranean Sea has added to the difficulties of both the local residents and the preservation of its archaeology.  Governmental agencies, such as the Israel Antiquities Authority and the government funded Corporation for the Development of Akko, have the political, legal and financial clout to impose development plans on the local residents who are largely left out of the decision making process and fear forced government displacement once again.  This situation has created a negative attitude among the residents towards the historic and archaeological remains and has increased the level of vandalism, poverty and crime in the old city. 

The main challenge is finding a way to preserve the archaeological and heritage remains, encourage community pride and interest, improve the general living standards of the community, develop the presentation of Akko's past and still preserve the integrity of the community.  At the University of Haifa, where I am a faculty member, I am teaching a course on the heritage of Akko in an attempt to raise the awareness of the next generation of archaeologists regarding their responsibility to the local community and environment.  In addition we have established a multi-disciplinary research group on Akko which includes archaeologists, historians, sociologists, geographers, and tourism exports.  Through this group, we hope to research all aspects of Akko's past and present and to bring public and political attention to the need for the community's active involvement in the development of historic Akko.  

            We at the Ename Center in East-Flanders are now involved in such several heritage interpretation projects at Born and Stevensweert in the Netherlands that uses new virtual reality techniques of presentation.  In addition, we are actively involved in international educational courses aimed at training future archaeologists and anthropologists in site presentation to the public and the interaction between the community, local politicians and developers.   Our first course will take place this summer in Belgium, together with the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Maryland.  In our courses and in each project we stress the importance of working closely with local governmental authorities, international organizations, academic institutions, as well as the local inhabitants.  As an important initial step in all these projects, we seek to identify the concerns and feelings of the local community toward their heritage and related touristic development.  The results of such inquiries and discussions are incorporated into the conceptual plan, physical design, and interpretive styles that eventually emerge. Though each case—and each community—is unique we are attempting to utilize new technologies that allow us a non-intrusive, yet flexible, method of interpretation.  Through these technologies, combined with close cooperation with local communities, we hope to encourage interest, tolerance and understanding of our multi-cultured shared past.