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Digging into Culture


By Jessica Wolf

Published Mar 9, 2017 8:00 AM

UCLA archaeologists enlist the local community to help preserve Ethiopia's cultural heritage.

Near the small village of Mai Adrasha in Ethiopia, UCLA archaeologists found themselves digging into more than dirt. They were also diving into another role, serving as ambassadors of history. Specifically, they were helping the local community understand that there is wealth not only in the natural gold-rich soil that encloses long-buried ancient ruins, but also in preservation of cultural heritage.

“We decided it was really worthwhile to keep this site so we spent a lot of time this season talking to people who live around Mai Adrasha,” says Willeke Wendrich, director of the Cotsen Institute and professor of Egyptian archaeology and digital humanities, who has led digs in the area for the last two years.

The results were heartening — for archaeology as a whole and for the UCLA team in particular.

Wendrich and the team recently returned from their second excavation in this region of northern Ethiopia called Shire. In several active trenches, they are looking for artifacts from the pre-Aksumite era (before 300 B.C.). The period remains something of an archaeological mystery, partially because its remains are disappearing, and human’s hunt for gold is partly to blame.

Mai Adrasha, like most villages in the region, is impoverished. Locals, as well as people from equally poor villages farther away, have dug into the earth, panning for the tiny flakes of gold in the soil. In the process, they have dismantled much of what in other parts of Ethiopia has been preserved as attractive tourist destinations. In places like Aksum, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa, well-preserved, excavated walls and artifacts illuminate the ancient past and contribute to the local economy.

After two digging seasons, encouraged by bits of metalwork and ceramic and other findings, the UCLA team wanted to keep their trenches as intact as possible. They reached out to the local community to help residents — and potential gold diggers — understand what exactly these foreigners are working toward.

With the help of an interpreter who speaks the local Tigrinya, Wendrich and her team hosted a town meeting. During the meeting they showed photographs and diagrams that told the story of what the town had already lost because of the rampant gold digging.

A dig site near the small village of Mai Adrasha in northern Ethiopia where UCLA archaeologists have been conducting field research.

Villagers listened and then began shouting animatedly. Wendrich originally thought her plan had backfired.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, they hate it,’” Wendrich says. “Then I asked the translator what they were saying and he said, ‘They are all very angry that this has been destroyed and they all want to keep it. They think it’s very important and they want to help you.’”

An important part of Wendrich’s community outreach also involved the youngest community members; she visited the two primary schools to talk to the children about the dig.

At one school Wendrich found a budding science program dubbed the NASA Scientific Laboratory. The school has almost no equipment, but the teachers are doing a remarkable job presenting scientific ideas, she says.

Wendrich and her team invited the whole school to visit the site. Once there, after listening to what the archaeologists are searching for — and the history they are hoping to bring to light — the children’s teacher shouted: “We have to keep our cultural heritage.”

The children joined in, chanting: “Keep it! Keep it! Keep it!”

To view the original article from the UCLA Newsroom visit



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