Socially meaningful archaeology

On a dig five years ago, University of Calgary archaeologist Julio Mercader found 1000-year old ritual bowls in a cave in Mozambique. Instead of snagging them for his institution as usually happens when Western archaeologists excavate in Africa, Mercader decided to create a local museum, staffed with locals.

Locals are being trained in African archeology, making western and African academic research relevant to the local population.

“I’m grateful that I’m being given the chance to actually be trained,” said Mussa Raja, through a translator.

Raja is an honours student at a university in Mozambique and has been studying archeology at the U of C for the past 41/2 months.

“I’m getting the training in the actual practicality of how to excavate and do field work,” he said.

Raja, who said archeology is a new science for many African universities, has seen the attitudes of his people change when they see a fellow African doing archeological work.

“They’re so happy when it’s not just foreigners there,” said Raja.

The museum, which opens in August, will display the finds made by Mercader’s team, including Stone Age artifacts, and will also feature an interactive centre and an oral history archive.

I call that brilliant. One of the most common justifications I’ve read for western museums buying (often unprovenanced) antiquities on the (totally dirty) market is that the poor locals in their poor war-torn countries couldn’t possibly care for the artifacts as well as the big budget “universal” museums abroad do.

Mercader has now torn that argument to shreds, and he’s just one man doing the best he can. Imagine what museums and universities with endowments and hundreds of people on staff could accomplish if they made the effort to work with local people and institutions to study and display their antiquities.

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