Cultural Resource Management and Africanist Archaeology. (Special Section)

By MacEarchern, Scott | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Cultural Resource Management and Africanist Archaeology. (Special Section)


MacEarchern, Scott, Antiquity


Introduction

Among the general public, the extraordinarily important role played by cultural resource management (hereafter CRM) procedures in the conservation of archaeological materials usually goes unrecognized. Popular images of the swashbuckling adventures of Indiana Jones, or somewhat more generally of intrepid archaeologists making the latest Find of the Century, do not accord well with the concept that the remains of past human activities are actual resources, ones that can and should be managed in the interest of nations and their citizens. All too often, the significance of CRM legislation and the archaeological research that stems from it is not recognized even by academic archaeologists, in part because publication procedures and venues are so different in the worlds of academic and contract archaeology.

This lack of knowledge plays out even more strongly when CRM procedures are considered outside North America and Western Europe, in Africa for example. In the popular Western imagination, Africa remains, to far too great an extent, the Dark Continent, a place of adventure, tragedy and possibly danger but hardly an arena for the domestication of archaeology into a workaday, institutional routine. Nevertheless, cultural resource management initiatives have played an important role in the development of African archaeology over the last four decades. In a period of economic crisis and general governmental retreat from support of basic research, the relative importance of CRM research in Africa is likely to increase. This paper provides a short and selective history of CRM initiatives in Africa, a consideration of the state of the art in the year 2001, and some speculations about the role of such initiatives in the future.

History

We may divide African CRM initiatives with archaeological implications into two broad categories: those involving basic archaeological field research and those involving conservation of the archaeological heritage of a particular country, in some countries via the activities of national museums. The environments and implications of these different kinds of initiatives are obviously somewhat different, but one common thread is that both usually require a well-functioning civil government, for oversight and for the allocation of resources to different CRM priorities. Sadly, such functioning structures of civil government have often been absent in a great many African countries at different times over the last few decades. Recent history has seen the destruction through warfare of cultural and historical resources in a number of African states, including for example important museum, archival and library resources in Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia. Just as troubling has been the hollowing-out of significant museum and site collections, through mismanagement, predatory collection by foreigners and outright theft (cf. Brandt & Mohamed 1996; jegede 1996; Sanogo 1999; Willett 2000). This has meant that structures supporting CRM -- infrastructure, personnel, educational programmes, legislation -- have in some cases had to be painfully rebuilt, often competing with what appear to be far more pressing national priorities.

The establishment of the Department of Anthropology at the South African Museum and the passage of the first antiquities laws on the continent in that country in 1911 and 1913 (Deacon 1990: 42), may be taken to mark the beginning of archaeological resource management in sub-Saharan Africa. Management of archaeological resources has taken different paths in different countries in Africa, reflecting colonial and post-colonial histories, the finances and infrastructure available to support research and the particular nature of archaeological materials uncovered (Robertshaw 1990). It is impossible to summarize developments across the continent as a whole, encompassing circumstances as varied as the establishment of the Institut Francais d'Afrique Noire at Dakar in 1941 and the Nigerian Antiquities Service in 1943, the increasing tempo of early hominid discoveries and the influence of the Leakey family in East Africa from the 1950s onward, and the comparatively well-developed research infrastructure found in South Africa.

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