Archaeology and Economic Development 2012

Economic Development, Community Archaeology and Government Approval in Kyrgyzstan

Contrary to much critique of the discipline, archaeologists as a rule care a great deal about the welfare of descendant communities and local groups living near their work sites. As professionals their respect for heritage is unparalleled, albeit not always expressed along lines acceptable to Indigenous groups. Efforts by archaeologists to turn their discoveries to the benefit of impoverished local communities have increased dramatically in the past decade, though more likely motivated by a desire to thwart looting and site destruction than entirely out of an altruistic desire to encourage economic improvements.

However archaeologists have not been quick to take advantage of the weight of literature available to help them succeed, nor have many made the connection between colonialism, top-down development, and site preservation. The failure of some of these well intentioned programs is even more dramatic than a failed development project because in addition to the lack of real economic improvement, the emphasis on conservation may actually inspire site destruction.

Typically, archaeologists work for heritage preservation through economic development hand in hand with the government agencies that provide their funds and permits; these efforts usually amount to a classic scenario of top-down development. The alternative, grass roots development based on thick description of a targeted group, is outside the scope of archaeological research and outside the training of professional archaeologists. Nevertheless some projects are more successful than others. In this paper I discuss two projects I have attempted, one successful and one not, to work with local groups to derive economic benefits from my research and expertise as an archaeologist. I hope to be able to highlight some of the differences in effort and context that led to these different results.

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