• 4DHeritage team

Learning from the past to sustain our future


How can we sustain our heritage - the history and ideas - that have shaped us, that have given us a shared sense of identity which underpins the cohesion our community?

What we can learn from the past and how can it enrich our futures?

How can we strengthen the intergenerational learning?


These are threads that have been woven into the webinar series, inspired by insights from the Shali restoration and revival project; as well as similar initiatives in other parts of the world.


The Coronavirus crisis has made the world seem a much smaller place, and the unexpected benefit of that pandemic has been that people have been even more ready to share insights and collaborate in a virtual environment. Within a few months this webinar series has shown how digital heritage can both transform access and understanding of heritage. In the webinars and the blogs we have explored how digital heritage can enable anyone with access to the internet to discover, explore and learn about heritage sites in some of the most remote or fragile places on earth. It has also laid the foundation for new partnerships and collaborations. The webinar series itself has brought together hundreds of heritage activists, practitioners, teachers and students, from more than 30 countries; and in doing so created networks and started conversations across frontiers and generations.


In this blog we look at the opportunities to learn from endangered sites in very different places – from the coast to the desert to the mountains. Each community has found ways of sustaining their societies for hundreds of years. This has not necessarily been through rules and regulation but through voluntarily adopting practices shown to work across the generations.


The case studies show how these settlements have become focal points in their respective civilisation – a place for learning and trade be it in the context of the Indian ocean trading networks, the Mediterranean civilisation or caravans routes which criss-crossed and connected the African. All of them now face existential threats from climate change as well as modern developments which threated to upset the delicate balance that has sustained them.


We will look at the opportunity to learn from one another around the world about sustaining heritage; and using the SDGs as a common framework for sharing those experiences.


The Pwani Initiative

The Pwani Initiative in East Africa is part of a programme to identify ways in which marine cultural heritage can directly benefit coastal communities in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar. Despite its richness marine cultural heritage is one of the most unknown, underappreciated and under-exploited cultural resources in East Africa. Critically, this heritage is under threat from natural forces and climate driven coastal change as well as recent intensification in coastal and offshore development.



This Pwani project is part of the Rising from the Depths programme. It aims to assist the Department of Museums and Antiquities in Zanzibar with a space for the display and interpretation of the maritime cultural heritage in the restored former orphanage building in the centre of Stonetown, Zanzibar. The aim was to create a permanent legacy by the local community, for the local community that showcases the maritime cultural heritage of the Zanzibar archipelago, and of the East African coast, more widely.


It is impossible to understand the Zanzibar archipelago without appreciating its maritime heritage both in the past and present.

Mostly likely since the first century CE, the islands of Unguja and Pemba (that make up modern Zanzibar) have been at the fulcrum of the maritime cultural heritage of East Africa.


With occupation in the early Iron Age in northern Pemba, and through early port cities of Unguja Ukuu, Ras Mkumbuu and Tumbe from the seventh century, we are able to tell the story of indigenous maritime groups coming into contact through trade and religion, with transoceanic traders.


The strategic position of the islands in the monsoon wind system enabled their development as entrepôts in the Indian ocean commercial networks. Ruined towns from the thirteenth century such as Tumbatu, Chwaka and Ras Mkumbuu, are among the best preserved in East Africa.


The wealth of the islands attracted Portuguese and Omani colonisation from the seventeenth centuries – with trading factories, farms and missions, later replaced by forts, palaces and plantations. However, the underlying indigenous maritime culture, survived within these urbanising and colonial processes, and is visible in the archaeological record, as well as nowadays in the ethnography of the islands.



The central theme is the importance of maritime cultural heritage in the Zanzibar archipelago with a deep continuity into the present day.


An important framework for communicating the value of this heritage has been the Sustainable Development Goals.



How then does this link to the SDGs?

The Sustainable Development Goals have provided a framework for this project:

1) to promote an understanding of MCH and a sense of ownership and pride about this heritage in the local communities (SDG 1, 4, 14, 15)

2) how sustaining maritime cultural heritage can contribute to life below the water (SDG goal 14)

3) to provide a space to explore diversity within the MCH, including the role of women as key actors in conservation (SDG 5, 11, 14)

4) to promote the importance of traditional craft within the MCH (boat building, fish traps and nets, basketry, sail making, processing of maritime resources) and to foster the development of creative arts (SDG 8)

5) to develop an awareness of MCH within the Zanzibar government, agencies, NGO’s, and to provide a space to help build capacity and skills for officials and development workers (SDG 11)

6) to help facilitate a heritage tourism facility in the centre of Zanzibar that will help generate income for the local communities (SDG 8, 11)

7) to provide training opportunities for Zanzibaris in museum and heritage interpretation (SDG 4)


Oases – and learning from Siwa

Like endangered coastal settlements, oases in the middle of the barren, scorching desert are remarkable places.



Oases conjure up images of sanctuary and paradise in some of the most hostile environments on Earth. All over the world oasis ecosystems are under threat. Remote and distant from the capital cities and urban world, the plight of oases, and the people and numerous species that live there, is often forgotten.


Oases are unique freshwater ecosystems centred around a spring within an arid region. They contain a unique diversity and interaction of microbial, plant and animal life.

While rich in biological life, oases have also proved to be fertile grounds for human settlement. Two-thirds of the population in the Sahara lives in oasis socio-ecosystems, for example.


Although oases may seem isolated, their stability depends on interactions between nearby ecosystems and the local climate. In addition, oases play a key role in migratory bird routes and as a refuge for vulnerable and endangered species. Human oasis settlements are also highly connected through trade routes. Instead of isolation then, oases are perhaps better characterised by interactions.


These interactions also make oases vulnerable to anthropogenic changes. Climate change, invasive species and problems associated with intensified land and water use, such as desertification, salinisation, and decrease in water resources are all placing increased pressures on oasis socio-ecosystems.


One of the most celebrated and historic is the Siwa Oasis. But as we heard in the previous webinar, the Siwa oasis ecosystem is coming under increasing pressure.



Knossos – a palace in the mountains

The Minoan Palace at Knossos is one of the most visited cultural landmarks in the world. The palace and its sister sites across Crete were the centres of European culture since before 2800 B.C.


Whereas today the sheer footprint of tourism is a challenge on the site, it’s location meant that sustainability needed to be incorporated in very design, illustrated by its approach to water management and ventilation.


Its position on a hill meant that the palace received sea breezes during the summer.

The complex was designed with porticoes and air shafts; to improve the comfort of the palace during the heat of the summer. Perhaps we can learn from the past as we think about sustainable ways of addressing water and heat in the future.


In each of these three cases studies have also heard about the threat they face, from climate change with the rise in sea level and encroachment to accelerated development from foreign direct investment, the depletion of natural resources and the pressures of tourism .


All these factors pose a real risk to both their tangible – the structures, site and objects, as well as the intangible heritage – the knowledge, crafts, traditions and stories that give context and meaning.


The work of archaeologists, conservationists, teachers and leaders in the local community, can all in ensure the ancient knowledge is preserved and we can build on it going forwards as we chart a course for a more sustainable future in very uncertain times.

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