SITE PRESENTATION \ 233
1: G. Buccellati, October 2007
Archaeology and site presentationThere are two major reasons why I feel that site presentation should be an integral part of the archaeologist's field work.
The first is social responsibility. We must be responsive to the impact that our finds make on the perception people have towards their past. And we cannot simply leave this for others to do, after we have completed our job (which, in the narrower perception, means purely excavations). We must seek to convey the meaning we extract from the ground, because we are the ones who best understand its nuances, its implications, its full import. We cannot then blame others for misrepresentations, exaggerations, or outright errors. And we must do it in "real time," i.e., while our work is going on, so that we do not fail to communicate, as well, the sense of discovery in action.
The second reason is that, in the process, we become better archaeologists. By attending seriously to the task of properly explaining complex situations, we often come to understand better the very complexity that, if truth be told, baffles us as well as the intelligent visitor. In addition, we also come to better see the coherence of the pieces. We excavate in discrete and separate units, which we connect in what often remains but an abstraction. Presenting the site to others forces us to reflect on the concrete links of an ancient urban landscape that did not consist of holes in the ground, and was not necessarily or only the result of haphazard accretion. It often developed, instead, in response to aesthetic and functional concerns of which we can easily lose sight if our quest remains myopically tied to the excavation process as such.
Overall, then, my experience has been that in trying to seriously convey a sense of the essential aspects of the site we gain a deeper understanding of the coherence of the whole; that in listening to the many responses we elicit we develop a sensitivity for unsuspected ways of looking at what we think we know so well; that in honestly confronting different values we see in a new light the proper dimension of our own. While the full application of these principles is definitely a specialty that requires professionals in their own right, it behooves field archaeologists not only to develop a sensitivity for them, but also to implement them to the best of their abilities.
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Excavations and site presentationSite presentation should be an integral part of the archaeologist's field work in another sense as well – for it should, in my view, be inscribed in the excavation strategy itself. This means that, everything else being equal, special consideration should be given, when planning the excavation proper, to the way in which the resulting exposure may be shown at its best. In practice, this simply entails being aware of the vantage points from which the emerging stratigraphy and architecture can best be viewed, and to proceed with the excavations in such a way that that vantage point may be respected and even privileged.
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The Mozan experimentAt Tell Mozan we are seeking to meet the challenge by aggressively promoting a diversified and integrated approach to site presentation. In the first place, the concept is indeed inscribed in the very strategy of excavation. Everything else being equal, we include, in decisions about the progress of the excavation, considerations about how to present the results.
Then, we provide a special type of signage that will especially be useful for visitors, especially those who come when the Expedition is not present.
An excavation project is a live undertaking. We want the visitor to share in that life as well as in the life of the ancients, who populated the site with bustling activities and bequeathed it not as a fossil to the ground, but as a living memory to us – and to those who will come after us.
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The narrative frameJust as the excavation strategy pursues a logic aimed at exposing a coherent whole, so, too, site presentation at Mozan proposes the unfolding of a unified story. This is done through an organization of the signs along an intellectual itinerary that matches the physical paths. It is the overarching narrative frame that introduces a certain positive tensionality as one progresses through time and space, reflecting at the same time on the archaeological process that makes it all possible.
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Site and websiteThe material that is currently available at the site is also accessible online. This allows visitors to prepare in ways that no commercial guidebook can do. By virtue of their being integrated within the larger website, the materials provided acquire a wider significance, because they can be studied, i.e., critically compared with the vast scope of the website as a whole. The agility of the website approach means that this immersion can take place at a variety of different levels, from that of a prospective tourist to that of a scholar. In either case, we are truly offering the opportunity for visitors to turn their visit into a "study" session. Even the most casual confrontation with the website can elicit questions about the archaeological site that will make a physical trip to Mozan that much more appealing and rewarding.
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Visitors centerAt present, we have only an embryonic visitors center. It is a room of the Expedition House, where a small display is on view, and facilities are made available to visitors. The room is equipped for audio-visual presentations, but these are at present possible only when the Expedition is in session (we plan to introduce this opportunity in the near future for the rest of the year as well). On the other hand, our guards, Ismail Musa and especially Muhammad Omo, are available to welcome visitors and assist them during their visit to the site, a task for which they have unfailingly been praised by our visitors.
It has been my deliberate choice to emphasize, at this point in time, conservation and signage over the construction of a separate visitors center, for three reasons. First, conservation is an absolute chronological priority, since otherwise the degradation of the monuments will eventually require a wholesale reconstruction. Hence, our energies and funds must be devoted to that aspect first and foremost.
Second, visitors who make the long journey to come to Mozan are interested in seeing the site in its very concrete dimension, more than in the surrogate version offered by audio-visual presentations. Hence, the creative effort has been devoted to turning the site into its own self-presentation, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the unique architecture, stratigraphy and natural environment that the site has to offer.
Third, I wish to appeal, especially in these early stages of our effort, to the local "stakeholders," who are more likely to stroll by the site on a casual visit in the open air than to lock themselves in a closed room for an abstract intellectual presentation, however visually stimulating it might be.
It is for these reasons that I have left for the future the establishment of a visitors center proper. For now, this website may be taken to serve in its place.
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MaintenanceOf fundamental importance is the development of a sensitivity for proper maintenance and of the attendant, necessary skills. We have worked hard on this aspect, and we are making slow but substantial progress.
The first aspect has been the monitoring of the site during our absence, which we have done in three ways. First, we have trained a local assistant, Ibrahim Khellu, to record temperature and humidity throughout the year. Second, we have similarly trained Diadin Mustafa Majdal to work as our photographer during the season of excavations, and in this capacity he continues to take photos and videos of the site throughout the time we are not present. Finally, beginning in 2007, Hiba Qassar, a graduate student of archaeology at Damascus University, and a resident of Qamishli (the nearest city to Mozan), has visited the site and reported to us via e-mail about its conditions.
Up until 2008, we had left no instructions for anyone to intervene with normal repairs, the reason being that we wanted to have a good record of normal damage that would occur especially during the winter months. Beginning in 2008, we instructed our guard, Muhammad Omo, to take action with regard to such matters as the growth of vegetation, the damage of the protective structures or, where possible, the loss of signs. This has worked well, and we intend to expand this aspect by pro-actively eliminating the problems we have identified, and by providing additional training for active intervention even during our absence, to the extent that this does not affect the antiquities themselves.
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