Essays on the Marshallese Past

Archaeological sites: a hindrance for development or
a nation's investment for the future?

In most developing nations throughout the world there is the notion that supporting Cultural Resource Management is a prerogative of First World countries, while a developing country cannot afford the luxury to heed the calls for the protection of the heritage. In the eyes of most economists and public administrators, development and Cultural Resource Management are as incopatible as fire and water. In the follwoing we will show that Historic Preservation has an economic value which should be taken into account by government officials and economists.

The potential role of Historic Preservation in the cultural and economic development is manifold: It comprises fostering of cultural identity; thereby often creating political unity; cultural education by providing teaching tools; providing long-term perspectives on environmental changes; in exploitation patterns; and on age and health composition of a population; It also provides avenues for economic betterment by creating tourist attractions; and economic betterment by adapting traditional solutions to solving modern problems.

"Archaeological sites are a hindrance to development." "One cannot develop properly with all those museum people making a fuss over some old junk on the construction site." These and similar sentiments, usually expressed less pointedly, can be heard by many economists, construction company officials and developers alike. Only too often, governments treat the issue in the same vein and in times of economic hardship will curtail the funding for culture, and there first for archaeological work. And so the heritage suffers continuously, and quite needlessly, I believe. Consider the following:

Archaeological sites are also records of the environmental past. "Oh not more environment," one may say. But in this day and age with the spectre of global climatic change looming on the horizon, we do need all data we can get to develop proper micro-models on environmental change in any given area.

The most ubiquitous of the archaeological sites in the coastal areas of the Pacific and the Pacific Rim countries are shellmiddens, piles of shells and other refuse left behind by prehistoric and early historic people living along the shore. These rubbish piles contain a unique data source, and this data source in abundance: shells. The calcite skeleton of the shells fixes the environmental conditions of the sea-water and the air at the time. By analysing these shells we can assess sea water temperature and oxygen concentrations. Such an analysis, executed on Ecuadorian shellmiddens, has been successful in demonstrating historically past events of the El Ničo phenomenon, a quasi-cyclic warming of the waters of the eastern Pacific which brings about drastic climatic change. The 1991/92 El Ničo event, for example, is responsible for the present spate of typhoons devastating the Pacific nations, and the climatic extremes of torrential rainfall followed by droughts plagueing Australia. Scientists are finding it difficult to reconstruct these events back into history, and here archaeological sites can provide unique and thus extremely valuable data sources.

Today's main topic of environmental problems is the vanishing ozone layer. To assess whether there are long-term cycles in this phenomenon we have once more to reach back into history, long before ozone was recognised as a gas, long before gasses were scientifically defined. It will only be a matter of time until techniques are developed to assess the changes in the ozone layer from chemical changes in the shells' mantles. Permutations of the theme are almost endless. And data sources are abundant, unless we keep on destroying them without some responsible management.

Shells are in all ways a sensitive indicator of the environment they live in. When the environment changes, the shells change, either in species composition or in the size to which the individual species grow. By analysing the shells in the shell middens, one can reconstruct such environmental changes. In Tonga, for example, the analysis of middens showed that over time an open bay had gradually closed to form a lagoon, in the last 3000 years in fact, and that this was a result of the gradual drop in relative sea-level. The analysed data set is of much finer grain than the data advanced from studies on corals, the commonly employed tool. Based on these data, then, projections could be made to assess the impacts of a future rise in sea-level due to global warming. A similar analysis allowed the reconstruction of the development of the flood plain of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea and permits projections on future impacts created by climatic change. These examples are not unique, but can be replicated in mosts parts of coastal mainland and insular South-East Asia. The economic value of such data for assessing the future of aquaculture operations and coastal zone development is obvious.

Coastal erosion is a problem for many coastal nations. Assessing the speed of the erosion is often not easy, as proper time markers are absent. Historical sites can be used as such markers in time, as their date of construction is known and because they do not move from their location in relation to the shoreline. Such analyses, for example, have been carried out by HPO staff on Taroa, Maloelap; and by others elsewhere all over the world. If the sites had been destroyed, these data would have been unobtainable.

The coral atolls of the central Pacific are so low-lying that sea-level change threatens the very existence of these nations. The economic and social problems connected with any relocation of the entire population of these nations, were it to become necessary, should raise every economistŘs attention. One of the key issues is whether corals can keep up with the projected rise in sea-level relative to land, or whether they cannot. In this context the vital issue is to determine the growth rates of coral and to assess whether, and how fast, the corals can recolonise currently dead reef flats. Submerged historical sites, such as shipwrecks, airplane wrecks and submerged portions of docks and piers provide unique data. Since their date of sinking or construction is known, and since they were coral free at the time of submergence they are uniquely suited for such an analysis. The cost to set up such a large scale and geographically wide ranging monitoring experiment would be prohibitive, let alone taking into account the time lag until data become available.

The coastal areas and waters of the Pacific Islands and the Pacific Rim countries abound with these data providers. Why destroy them lighthandedly during construction and development?

As has been shown, archaeological sites do have economic value. Being markers in time they become increasingly valuable to those in dire need of data for predictions in environmental change. There is an abundance of data for a multitude of the above mentioned and similar analyses. But: archaeological sites are a finite and unrenewable resource left behind by our forebears. It is our responsibility to manage this resource in a wise, and thoughtful manner. These sites have enormous economic potential, the data contained in these sites are invaluable for science, coastal engineering and prediction of environmental change. Let us not squander these resources lighthandedly at the expense of our children's generation.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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