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Gotland and Easter islands struggle to preserve heritage

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Author Topic: Gotland and Easter islands struggle to preserve heritage  (Read 113 times)
Jonna Herring
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« on: September 11, 2007, 01:13:24 am »

Paul Wallin beneath the Anakena Moai on Easter Island. (Kate Singleton)

Gotland and Easter islands struggle to preserve heritage
By Kate Singleton Published: September 10, 2007

GOTLAND, Sweden: You might not think that a small island in the Baltic could have much in common with even smaller islands in the Pacific. But when it comes to archaeological heritage, there are plenty of issues to share. Approaches to research and conservation, of course. But also, and increasingly, how to protect landscapes rich in ancient artifacts from the onslaught of tourism.

Landscape was an essential underlying theme at the 7th International Conference on Easter Island and the Pacific held last month on Gotland, a 4,500-square-kilometer, or 1,740-square-mile, landmass a 3-hour ferry ride from the Swedish coast.

"While every monument is individual, we need to take into account the connections between them. How they came about, and what they signify. That's what we mean by landscape," explained Paul Wallin, associate professor of archaeology at Gotland University.

Wallin spent several years in the 1980s studying ceremonial sites on the Society Islands, one of the Polynesian archipelagos, and excavating on Easter Island with the explorer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) of Kon Tiki fame. Today he believes that this experience could be precious to his work on Gotland, an island with some magnificent Stone and Bronze Age sites, Viking monuments and medieval settlements.

"We are currently excavating big stone burial mounds, or cairns, here on Gotland," he said. These are Bronze and Iron Age monuments, so they are much older than those of the Pacific. Interpreting them can be problematic, because we don't have the oral traditions that are helpful in Polynesia. But we may find that some of the parameters we developed for Pacific island archaeology could be applicable here. We may discover connections between the various artifacts that are common to different societies."

Under Wallin's direction, Gotland University now offers a course on ritual landscape which focuses on how people organized the wider context of the land they inhabited. Moreover, in September a B.A. degree in international archaeology will be inaugurated.

Landscape has always been radically shaped by climate and by man, which is why the study of migration and land use is so essential to the growth of archaeological knowledge.

Gotland was settled about 8,000 years ago by hunters lured by seals that proliferated along its coast. These migrants introduced pigs and hedgehogs, but relied more on trade than on farming. Commerce was also essential to the Vikings in the 8th and the 9th centuries A.D. The Viking age silver found on the island (it is still being unearthed at the rate of one major hoard a year) would have originated in Baghdad, the fruit of trade as well as plunder. Little wonder, then, that decorative embellishments of distinctly Middle Eastern guise found their way here.

Mapping out how and when humans moved from one part of the globe to another has been hugely aided in recent years by DNA analysis of animal bones. The genetic codes of animals are easier to decipher and recognize than human DNA. In Polynesia pigs, hens, edible rats and dogs would have been deliberately introduced by the migrants. Since these animals do not swim or fly, their presence in particular areas provides compelling evidence of human settlement, and the directions in which it moved.

"When the Polynesians reached Easter Island around AD 800-1000, they found a paradise of palm trees, birds and plants," explained Georgia Lee, the 80-year-old doyenne of Easter Island archaeology. "The palm trees were of a species found in Chile. Perhaps, with favorable currents, the seeds might have bobbed along on the ocean from South America and sown themselves on the island. But then the new Rapa Nui inhabitants cut them down, ate all the birds and overfished the waters, which is why the island is as barren as it is today. We should learn from the past," she said, "but I don't think we very often do."

Lee spent six years in the 1980s recording the many thousands of petroglyphs that are part of the Rapa Nui heritage. That was before the days of Kevin Costner's film, "Rapa Nui" (1994), and its aftermath of Western leisure drugs and myriad automobiles on a 165-square-kilometer island with a population of just 4,000.

In 1995, Easter Island gained recognition as a Unesco World Heritage site. While this infused the local population with pride and renewed interest in their archaeological treasures, it also brought an influx of visitors that the island was ill prepared to manage.

"Every day the sites are trampled by hundreds of visitors who disembark from huge cruise ships and jumbo jets," said Lee with more than a hint of despair in her voice. "There is no waste recycling, so the trash becomes landfill. I've just heard that the main aquifer is now heavily polluted, and it appears that all sorts of cancers are on the increase."
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Jonna Herring
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« Reply #1 on: September 11, 2007, 01:15:43 am »

There's no sewage treatment on the island either. To stem the noxious flow into land and sea, the Easter Island Foundation recently shipped in two self-composting toilets from Australia. "A mere drop in the ocean," said Lee. "While the foundation focuses on awarding scholarships to islanders who wish to study abroad so that they can return better equipped to manage their island's heritage, a new 5-star hotel arises from the dust, creating more pollution and providing handsome profits to investors overseas."

Visby, the charming medieval capital of Gotland, also gained Unesco World Heritage recognition in 1995. "The listing was essential for us," said Gun Westerholm, who is senior curator at the excellent County Museum of Gotland.

"People started restoring the old houses and taking new pride in their heritage. Yet I feel uneasy about the future. There are strong economic interests that work against sustainability. Our coastline is currently being compromised by the construction of major hotels and condos overlooking the water. Developers buy up discreet camping sites, and a few months later in come the diggers. Somehow building permits are obtained, ancient trees are felled and cement monstrosities arise. This is blight which is putting grave pressure on our water supply and waste disposal."

Westerhom hopes that the many Swedish writers, artists and filmmakers who have homes on Gotland will underwrite a petition that would shake the local authorities out of their complacency. "There's a major difference between preserving our heritage and cashing in on it for short-term gains. I sometimes wonder if archaeology isn't a paradigm for the state of the planet. Let's hope it's not too late to redress the balance," he said.

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