Archaeology and Community: Experiences in the Azraq Oasis

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By: Alison Damick, Columbia University, and Ahmad Lash, The Department of Antiquities of Jordan

Azraq, an oasis village in the northeastern Jordanian steppe, sits on the crossroads of the highways connecting Jordan to Saudi Arabia and Iraq [Fig 1]. Its remarkable archaeological record reflects millennia of human activity; the first recorded human occupation in the Azraq Basin dates to more than 300,000 years ago. Including prehistoric, Roman, Byzantine, and early and middle Islamic sites, the 13,000 km² basin area currently hosts a total of 157 documented archaeological sites. A great concern of recent years has been how to effectively protect those sites from the various threats they face, including environmental degradation and erosion, increased vehicle traffic, construction projects and looting. Co-emergent with this concern is the increasing interest among archaeologists in the close relationship between the contemporary world of which archaeological practice is a part and the narrative of the past that is produced from its activities. In 2008, the Azraq Community Archaeology Program (ACAP) was initiated to address these issues. We’d like to use this brief presentation of our experiences with the project to raise some of the issues we’ve encountered in practice and in theory, as launching pads for further discussion.

ACAP: The Place and the Aims of the Project

The current population in Azraq consists of around 12,000 individuals living in two parts of the Oasis: North Azraq, or ‘Azraq al-Durzee,’ and South Azraq, or ‘Azraq al-Shishan.’ In South Azraq, the inhabitants are primarily Chechen and Bedouin. Both of these groups are Sunni Muslim, but the Chechen first came from the Caucasus to Azraq in 1911 while the Bedouin are Arabs who self-identify as the “native people” of the area. In North Azraq, 7 km away on the other side of the oasis, is the Bani-Ma’roof tribe, who are also Arab but Druze in religion. They originally came to Azraq from southern Syria in 1917. These are the three different majority groups living in the oasis, with distinct cultural and social practices, boundaries, historical narratives and ways of sharing those narratives. In discussion with local community members at the outset of the project, we were struck with the impression that often many “community” projects initiated from outside, despite good intentions and sometimes useful output, serve in their practice to exacerbate the sometimes tense relationships over space, authority, and administration in the oasis, particularly among the younger generations. Since we hoped, in founding ACAP, to establish the protection of archaeological sites as a common goal for the community (broadly), we wanted to take this concern quite seriously as we moved forward.

Given the above, ACAP was slowly developed with two main aims in mind. The first aim was one of general education, to improve protection of and minimize preventable damage to archaeological sites in the area. “Education” was envisioned as a multi-directional objective; archaeologists have as much (if not more) to learn about the organization, interests, and historical narratives already present in Azraq as the people in Azraq have to learn about archaeological practice, interests, and interpretations. On the one hand, one of the key factors in the human contribution to site damage in the Azraq Basin is the fact that many local people do believe in the existence of treasure hidden in archaeological sites, and especially in sites valued by archaeologists. It is important, however, to recognize that the historical role of archaeology and antiquarianism in the region has played a large part in introducing and fostering this belief, and that a better relationship between archaeologists, their work, and the broader community is a fundamental first step towards improving general understanding of archaeological sites and materials. Working together to produce different, local educational venues and think about the best ways to share information was the key agenda.

The second aim was directed towards reshaping the social role of archaeological practice in this specific community context. “Archaeology” and “heritage” are far too often understood as different studies and practices, or at least as distinct parts of a similar project. In terms of practice, often this means that “archaeology” is what is done by specialists, while “heritage” is what is later consumed by “the public.” There is an equally troubling chronological distinction that is frequently made; often, “heritage” is understood to be exclusively the recent and historical, that which can be directly linked to existing living populations, whereas prehistoric cultures are seen to be part of the realm of “archaeology,” primarily of interest to academia. In the case of Azraq, quite often this means that most information produced through archaeology is transported outside of the village itself, to reside and be presented in Amman or abroad. Instead, heritage and archaeology should be seen as inextricable and co-constitutive. One of the key goals of ACAP was to attempt to understand the way in which the contemporary world and understandings of the deep (as well as the more recent) past were entwined in this particular context. We wanted to bring the conversation back to Azraq, at the very least, before deciding how it might be represented.

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ACAP: Activities

Since 2006, before ACAP was officially initiated, Ahmad Lash, of the Department of Antiquities, had already begun to involve the local people from North and South Azraq in archaeological projects at Azraq Castle, the principal monumental site and a main tourist attraction in the village [Fig 2]. By hiring individuals from across the oasis as opposed to students or workers from outside the area, he worked to give an alternative appreciation of how the archaeological sites could be part of local residents’ incomes and daily life. He also conducted an oral histories project with members of the Druze community to understand and preserve local memories and stories of the history of the castle at the same time as its broader history was being excavated.

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In 2008, ACAP was developed in close partnership with the Epipalaeolithic Foragers in Azraq Project (EFAP), as part of the EFAP Community Engagement Program initiated by Alison Damick and the director of the Kharaneh IV excavations for EFAP, Lisa Maher. In 2009, it expanded as a cooperative endeavor between the Department of Antiquities and the British Institute in Amman, still working closely with EFAP. The Azraq Wetlands Reserve, then managed by Omar Al Shoshan, was also closely involved, as were the organizers of several local Azraq cultural organizations. In order to change misconceptions about archaeological sites in the community, and to readdress our own relationship with that community, we focused first and foremost on working with children and youth. We started a cooperative program with local schools to organize several activities for students of different ages, of both genders, and from both North and South Azraq schools. In this way, we were working with a number of interested individuals and groups from both the local community and the broader archaeological research community to develop a more nuanced and productive working relationship with the next generation of researchers and community members.

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The ACAP children’s programs took place at the Azraq castle, the Epipalaeolithic site of Kharaneh IV, and at the Umayyad reservoir in the Azraq Wetlands Reserve [Figs 3-9]. These sites gave a broad multi-period perspective on the different ways in which “archaeology” is present in the landscape, and simultaneously emphasized the different ways in which people are engaged with that landscape every day – whether through an environmental, touristic, archaeological, educational, or any other perspective. We started to organize visits to these sites for student groups from every demographic. These visits were interactive, including an opportunity at each stage to learn an “archaeological skill” and produce some representation of the experience of the site. For instance, at Kharaneh IV, the youngest students excavated a prepared “mock excavation” area at the base of the tell, learned to use GPS to track objects hidden in the surrounding landscape, and produced site or object drawings. Activities for older students included learning to use the Total Station, working with excavators on sieving and sorting, finds processing and flotation, and producing GPS maps.

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The third stage of the project intended to involve the broader community via the families of the students and in cooperation with the local Azraq cultural organizations. To this end, we organized an “Open Day,” including a morning program of visits to the archaeological sites in and around Azraq, an afternoon seminar with presentations from both local and international participants, and an evening celebration with dinner, music, and dancing from local Druze and Bedouin groups [Figs 10-13]. A highlight of the afternoon seminar was the presentation of Lash’s results from his oral histories project with the Druze, which allowed him to show which rooms in Azraq Castle were occupied by which living Druze families between 1917-1925 alongside results of the archaeological excavations in which living family members participated.

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The most compelling presentations, however, were those offered by the students who had participated in the field day programs, who (along with their teachers) were involved with planning their contribution to this event. A group of the students presented the artwork that they had produced after their field days in the hallway leading to the seminar room, and one of the youngest students gave a presentation during the seminar describing his experience at Kharaneh IV.

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Thoughts and Projections

We hope it is clear here that we make no claims that this particular attempt at “collaborative community archaeology” succeeds in overcoming the political or intellectual problems posed by its own aims or by the very proposition of doing archaeology as an engagement between and among people and notions of the past. The project has not always been smooth in its execution nor is its future at all certain; perhaps even more problematically, in many ways control of that future remains with outside archaeologists and government (not always in agreement themselves). The recent decision to relocate the Umari border highway to circumvent Azraq entirely presents both new opportunities for preservation efforts, but more challenges for maintaining local jobs and attracting visitors. The promotion of several people involved in the project has been a successful result, but has removed them from Azraq itself.

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Nonetheless, and despite these inevitable reservations and setbacks, after years of working with the local community, today there exists a group of local residents, particularly younger generations, involved in educational and media programs aimed to encourage the community to maintain the archaeological sites in the Azraq Basin. Given the shift in resources and people “on the ground,” recent and current projects focus on media development, including features on various television programs. Plans are also being developed for a local community museum, so that the space for interest in and concern about archaeology and heritage as entwined interests will have a physical place, as well. We hope that in the long run, this project will contribute to a better discourse on the generally usefulness of separating categories like “archaeology” and “heritage,” as we progress in our understanding of those categories and their impact locally.

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None of these programs would have been possible without cooperation and support from the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, The British Institute in Amman, EFAP and especially our colleague Lisa Maher, and of course all of the residents and particularly the children of Azraq.

The British Institute in Amman:

More info:
Damick, Alison, 2011. “Landscapes of the Past: Place, Space, and Constructing Meaning in the Azraq Community Archaeology Project.” (London: Council for British Research in the Levant Bulletin 6).

Damick, Alison and Ahmad Lash (forthcoming). “The Past Performative: Reflections on Community Archaeology in Azraq, Jordan.” (Near Eastern Archaeology 76).


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