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Sustainable Preservation Initiative: Saving Sites by Transforming Lives

by eric — last modified October 24, 2013 08:55 AM

A new program to preserve the world’s global heritage has come to the Cotsen Institute. The Sustainable Preservation Initiative, a program of the Cotsen and the Archaeological Institute of America, seeks to preserve the world's cultural heritage by providing sustainable economic opportunities to local communities. The SPI motto is “Saving Sites by Transforming Lives.”  

“People can’t eat their history,” says Larry Coben, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist and SPI’s Executive Director. “We need to provide an alternative to other potential economic uses of archaeological sites.” The problem of economically superior uses is prevalent in both more- and less-developed countries, from the razing of historically significant buildings in major cities for condominiums to the looting of sites by poor farmers searching for things to sell.

The Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan (left) and after it was destroyed by the Taliban (right).

The world’s global heritage is disappearing at a rapidly accelerating rate.  War, looting, climate change, neglect and increases in “extreme tourism” are all contributing to the destruction of sites. Particularly in poorer communities, there is no funding for site preservation, and alternatives to archaeology are the best economic uses of sites. The current economic crisis only exacerbates this problem.

Existing preservation paradigms have proved inadequate and unsustainable, primarily due to the absence of an economic reason for local communities to continue preserving sites after the departure of archaeologists and conservators. An enormous opportunity exists to create a new paradigm to respond to this problem. The explosion of “extreme tourism” and globalization create enormous potential for locally based tourism and artisan businesses. Even small local economic benefits can compete successfully with looting and alternative uses of sites. And the creation of local businesses with a vested interest in the preservation and maintenance of a site provides an ongoing and long-term source of incentive and funding for site preservation.

The theater and hippodrome at Jurash, a primarily Roman site in Jordan, are utilized today for theatrical performances like the one above. Non-destructive performances raise important revenue for both the community and the site itself.

SPI’s goal is the creation of this new preservation paradigm. Working with community and governmental leaders, local business people, archaeologists and preservationists, SPI will develop plans for projects and businesses that will be locally owned and that maximize the spending of dollars in the communities surrounding the sites. Through micro-lenders, charitable organizations and other sources of funding, SPI will provide micro-grants to new or existing businesses such as tourism, guide services, restaurants, hostels, transportation, artisans and site museums and other rapidly implementable projects. Continued economic support will be tied to successful preservation efforts. Through this combination of local involvement, decision making and ownership, sustainable economic benefits and value will be related to and conditioned upon continued site preservation. These businesses will also provide an ongoing revenue stream to meet preservation needs.

American college students discuss archaeology and local customs with Peruvian high school students. These interactions grow out of local archaeological excavations and sustainability programs

Of course, mere successful implementation of a few projects will not stem the destruction of the world’s global heritage.  We need to publicize, publish and educate with respect to SPI’s successes and failures, as well as create a network of experts who can consult with archaeologists and local communities to assist them in the implementation of local economically sustainable projects. Many archaeologists strongly desire to assist their local communities in this way, but are not trained to do so. In the middle and longer term, SPI will be a resource for them to call upon to meet this goal and preserve their sites, in part by providing an online network of experts with whom archaeologists can consult. SPI will also provide course material for inclusion in archaeological curricula.

A final goal of SPI is the creation of a digital SWAT team to map and preserve at least digitally those sites whose destruction seems imminent, in this way maintaining some information for future generations of scholars and others.

SPI works with artisans who make replicas of archaeological artifacts, like these Moche fine line ceramics found in a grave at San Jose de Moro

SPI In the News: Story by Reuters journalist Feilx Salmon.


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