Archaeology can be restorative after disasters

09 Feb, 2020 - 00:02 0 Views
Archaeology can be restorative after disasters

The Sunday Mail

Alfred Ndhlebe

Archaeologists should be among the first professionals to get to affected areas and proffer solutions from the perspective of their knowledge and expertise. Thus the CPU should always make archaeologists part of the rapid response team in the event of any disaster.

In mass disaster situations, the positive identification of human remains, as well as the search-and-rescue exercise, is a crucial but delicate task where experts need to be engaged.

The identification process of the victims is usually accomplished by employing scientific methods in the search-and-rescue process, which in most cases requires time and adequate resources. Archaeology, as a profession in Zimbabwe and the world at large, has been designed to handle aftermaths of any kind of disasters faced by any community.

The restoration of communities is an integral component of the various interventions to any affected area, thus the need to involve archaeologists who are trained to work with the affected communities to restore their heritage, both tangible and intangible.

In Zimbabwe, archaeology falls under the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, which is an affiliate of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage.

It is actually one of NMMZ’s many specialised branches, which employs scientific methods, among other skills, to detect, prevent and offer rescue services in the event of any type of disaster to societies.

According to Dr Pauline Chiripanhura, the curator of archaeology for Manicaland, NMMZ was involved in the search-and-rescue mission following the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai in Manicaland province in March 2019. The Civil Protection Unit (CPU) had initially not involved archaeologists when they responded to the disaster, and according to Dr Chiripanhura, it was only when it was realised that there was some exhumation work to be done that they were roped in.

Though it was a little bit late, it was a stitch in time that resulted in many assessments being undertaken by the NMMZ to the cyclone-hit communities.

Cyclone Idai destroyed not only livelihoods but also disturbed cultural activities, including tangible and intangible heritage, which archaeologists effectively assessed and assisted accordingly. Archaeology recognises and appreciates the values enshrined in every society, which in most cases are of an enduring value.  It is a discipline equipped with the skill to make sure that the heritage of any nature is preserved for posterity.

This, as one of the fundamental functions of archaeology, requires that their involvement in disasters be considered to be urgent.

Archaeologists should be among the first professionals to get to affected areas and proffer solutions from the perspective of their knowledge and expertise.

Thus, the CPU should always make archaeologists part of the rapid response team in the event of any disaster.

Archaeologists recommend that NMMZ’s role be enshrined in the management structure of the CPU’s Emergency and Disaster Response Plan so as to avoid their exclusion as part of response teams in future disasters.

Let us unpack the role of this specialised force in our country in mitigating against heritage erosion, including the conduct of rescue missions after Cyclone Idai in parts of Chimanimani and Chipinge.

Archaeological assessments were done, and they managed to identify the societies, families and heritage affected by the cyclone.

According to NMMZ (Manicaland branch), the area affected by the cyclone also had heritage sites. Although Chimanimani and Chipinge do not have any declared national monuments, there are 118 archaeological and historical monuments that are protected in terms of the National Museums and Monuments Act. Among the latter are de-proclaimed national monuments such as Bridal Veil Falls, Thomas Moodie’s Grave, Mutema Sacred Grove and Bambiri Engravings.

The survey revealed that most sites were found intact, with a few exceptions of rock art sites where the surfaces of the bedrock were eroded, exposing some cultural material such as potsherds and stone tools.

Interviews carried out by NMMZ’s team with local traditional leadership revealed that most of their sacred forests and pools were affected.  It is the duty of archaeology to determine the effect of these disturbances on key societal sources of livelihood and to put forward appropriate recommendations to relevant authorities towards the restoration of normalcy to affected communities.

Heritage covers a variety of elements, from economy to religion, and archaeology specialises in making sure that heritage is jealously guarded and restored after disasters.

In Chimanimani, people lost their property, they lost their relatives, they lost their spiritual leaders and they lost their communities too. Soon after the disaster, a heritage impact assessment of sites in Chimanimani and Chipinge was carried out to assess the impact of the cyclone.

Archaeological activities include the restoration of Chimanimani communities’ heritage, a process carefully done by meticulously following societal norms and values so as to achieve total heritage restoration.

The involvement of other governmental departments such as social welfare and local government is laudable and should never be taken lightly. It is also critical to note that they have limitations, thus the roping in of archaeologists through the NMMZ is crucial.


Dr Chiripanhura stated that they assisted in carrying out exhumations in areas where cadaver dogs had identified as containing human remains, and they successfully excavated about two bodies.

It should be noted that archaeologists are equipped with skills to carry out successful exhumations. They use delicate methods to make sure that they recover complete bodies buried in any part of the ground.

Cyclone Idai left a huge trail of destruction, which include a lot of debris in the form of rocks, logs, sand and mud.

There is always the temptation to use heavy equipment to dig through the debris in search of human remains. This could be fatal!

Heavy equipment can destroy the human remains and make it difficult to identify them, especially in situations where more than one body is buried.

The use of heavy equipment can only be done to clear the areas of huge rocks and logs so that the field is open and accessible.

People believe that their relatives are still buried underneath the debris and more scientific methods need to be explored to bring closure for relatives and the communities.

Government’s decision to hire cadaver dogs from South Africa was a commendable step, which shows that they believe in the involvement of specialists in disaster management operations. However, like any other discipline, cadaver dogs do have limitations, and archaeological activities can come to the rescue.

Cadaver dogs are efficient in smell detections of human remains and are trained to search and identify areas of possible interest.

Crucial information such as the number of bodies, the depth and exact locations is helpful when carrying out exhumations so as to avoid further disturbances to the evidence.


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Alfred Ndhlebe is the digital archivist and projects developer for the Zimpapers Knowledge Centre (formerly Editorial Library). He holds a BA degree in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies from the Midlands State University.





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