UCLA archaeologists are serving as ambassadors of history to help the local community in the village of Mai Adrasha understand that there is wealth in preservation of cultural heritage.

By Jessica Wolf (UCLA) |

Near the small village of Mai Adrasha in Ethiopia, UCLA archaeologists found themselves digging into more than dirt. They were also diving into another role, serving as ambassadors of history to help the local community understand that there is wealth not only in the natural gold-rich soil that encloses long-buried ancient ruins, but also in preservation of cultural heritage.

“We decided it was really worthwhile to keep this site so we spent a lot of time this season talking to people who live around Mai Adrasha,” said Willeke Wendrich, director of the Cotsen Institute and professor of Egyptian archaeology and digital humanities, who has led digs in the area for the last two years.

The results of their efforts were heartening — for archaeology as a whole and for the UCLA team in particular.

Wendrich, her co-director and graduate student Rachel Moy and their team recently returned from their second excavation near Mai Adrasha, in the region of northern Ethiopia called Shire. With several active trenches, they are looking for evidence from the pre-Aksumite era (before 300 B.C.), a period that remains something of an archaeological mystery, partially because the remains of it are disappearing as a result of humans hunting for gold.

Mai Adrasha, like most villages in the region, is impoverished. Locals, as well as people from equally poor villages farther away, have dug into the earth, panning for the tiny flakes of gold that can be found in the soil. In the process, they have dismantled much of what in other parts of Ethiopia has been preserved as attractive tourist destinations. In places like Aksum, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa, well-preserved, excavated walls and artifacts illuminate the ancient past and contribute to the local economy.

After two digging seasons, encouraged by bits of metalwork and ceramic and other findings, the UCLA team wanted to keep their trenches as intact as possible. They reached out to the local community to help residents — and potential gold diggers — understand what exactly these foreigners are working toward.

Wendrich and her team hosted a town meeting with the help of an interpreter who speaks the local Tigrinya (one of 52 languages spoken in Ethiopia) plus a borrowed generator — the town has no electricity. During the meting they were able to show photographs and diagrams that told the story of what the town had already lost because of the rampant gold digging.

Villagers listened and then began shouting animatedly. Wendrich originally thought her plan had backfired.

“I thought, ‘oh no’ they hate it,” Wendrich said. “Then I asked the translator what they were saying and he said ‘they are all very angry that this has been destroyed and they all want to keep it. They think it’s very important and they want to help you.’”

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