When Armenian media reported last May and June that the oldest leather shoe ever found was discovered in a cave in southern Armenia by archaeologists from UCLA, the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of Armenia and Cork University College in Ireland, reporters created a popular belief that the archaeologists were searching for ancient shoes filled with gold.
That sparked a wild looting spree throughout the country.
All over Armenia, multiple reports of looting of the country’s antiquities came in. However, only one individual made it into the cave itself and dug through the contents of one of the best-preserved burial jars at the site. Shoeless and carat-less, the would-be thief left empty-handed, but not before upending archaeologists’ plans to investigate the intact contents of the jar.
Mouth of a cave near Areni, Armenia, where the oldest complete wine production facilities were recently found.
“He — or she — left everything in place and didn’t take anything,” said UCLA archaeologist Gregory Areshian, who was at the site the next day following the looting. “But for us, substantial damage was done.” Areshian is assistant director of UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.
Fast-forward seven months later where hard-working UCLA biochemists, led by Hans Barnard of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, made yet another find in the very same cave that set off news bulletins worldwide. This time, it was the discovery of the oldest complete wine production facilities ever found, said Areshian, co-director of the excavation.
A fence has now been erected around the mouth of the cave, but UCLA archaeologists have another strategy they would like to pursue together with their Armenian colleagues — a plan that may motivate the local community of primarily grape farmers and wine producers to protect the site as a priceless part of their cultural heritage.
Think local tourism.
“What we’d like to do is build a self-sustaining museum of ancient wine in a village that’s two kilometers from the site,” said Charles Stanish, director of the Cotsen Institute. Nearly 3,500 people visit the site annually, but close to 60,000 tourists pass by on their way to other destinations, Areshian said. The museum would be the hub of a center where tourists could buy tickets to the cave, hire a guide, pick up brochures and other literature — and sample the region’s wine and perhaps pick up a bottle or two.
Once archaeologists set up the museum, all of it would be operated by the local people of Areni, the tiny village that is closest to the site. “It would become completely self-sustaining,” Stanish said. “Think about it — this is the wine-growing area of Armenia, their Napa Valley. You have all these small farmers who are now growing grapes so they can sell their wine on the street. Why not give them market-based incentives to preserve this site?”
Stanish is one of the leaders of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, a small, donor-supported, nonprofit group of entrepreneurs, academic archaeologists and others, that is taking a different tack to promote the preservation of endangered cultural sites: They want to give local communities an economic stake in these sites. And the best way to do that, they maintain, is to create transformative economic opportunities for local residents to save these archaeological sites for future generations.
Plans to build a tourist center with a museum and wine-tasting facilities would help local winemakers in Areni make a living and motivate the community to protect and preserve the cave where ancient artifacts have been discovered recently.
The idea for the initiative was incubated at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the Cotsen by Stanish and his colleague, Lawrence Coben, who serves as SPI’s executive director and an AIA trustee. Coben is an archaeologist affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania who directed a dig at an Inka site in Bolivia. He’s also the founder and CEO of a Fortune 500 company that invests in and advises businesses in the energy and environmental sectors.
“By and large, the traditional way [to preserve these sites] is to go in and tell the local people what to do, give them money and create dependencies,” Stanish said. “A lot of archaeologists try to help these poor communities — we build museums, libraries in their villages. That’s fine, but what happens when we leave? So we’re learning to retool these ideas to make them sustainable.” One way to achieve that is to choose projects where archaeologists are based in that country and have an extended relationship with the community.
“What we do is to ask local folks, ‘What would be in your best interest to help you value these sites, to motivate you to give these sites political and community protection?’” Stanish explained. “We try to empower people from the bottom up to make their own economic decisions so they have a sense of pride about these sites and can also make some money off of them.”
What the local community needs is jobs, he said. “So we try to create jobs — we train guards and guides, give microloans to taxi drivers and little hotels,” Stanish said. “What can we do so that, instead of looting a site, people will protect it?”
UCLA archaeologist Charles Stanish in Areni, Armenia
Coben puts it bluntly: “You can’t eat history.”
“These sites are not like Petra or the Coliseum, which are protected. And we are not talking about creating a Disneyland for tourists at major monuments,” Coben said. “These are very poor people who are trying to survive, to feed themselves and clothe their families. These people appreciate their history, but we are asking a lot of them to basically forgo any economic use of these sites.
"If archaeology is always a zero asset value to the community, it’s not going to work," Coben said. "We need to add a nondestructive economic element to archaeology to save sites before they permanently disappear.”
The idea of helping turn people away from looting is not that a far reach financially. That’s because those who do the actual looting make very little from their theft, Stanish said. “It’s the middle men who make all the money. A buyer in the U.S. will be paying $10,000 for a pot that someone in Peru will be stealing for $20. But it’s not just the looting that threatens these sites. It’s illegally building on archaeological sites. When even a faction of the community has an interest in maintaining site boundaries, the local people become very good at policing themselves.”
So far, SPI has a project going on the north coast of Peru at San Jose de Moro, an important Moche burial site. There, 25 local teens have been trained to make ceramic replicas of Moche artifacts that are being sold to tourists who visit the site, located on the Pan American Highway.
A local man who lives near an important Moche burial site is being trained to make Moche ceramic replicas. The project is supported by SPI and being overseen by a UCLA-trained archaeologist.
“We are already having an impact on these kids, creating a class of new artisans and entrepreneurs,” said Luis Jaime Castillo in an e-mail. He is a UCLA alumnus who is now a professor at a university in Lima, Peru, and overseeing the project. A building is nearly complete, a tourist center where visitors can purchase drinks, buy guidebooks, find guides and pay for tickets to the site. The project has been funded by Castillo’s grant.
“We will always shoot for internal tourists,” said Stanish. “International tourists tend to go to sites that are already protected. It’s the smaller, very important cultural sites that we’re concerned about with this project, including some in the U.S.”