Sat, 26 Apr 2003

Sangiran: Preserving history and heritage

Frangois Simah, Institut de, Paliontologie Humaine, Paris and Truman Simanjuntak, Center for Archaeological Research, Jakarta

Thoroughly studied for almost 70 years, the Sangiran dome, Central Java, one of the most important places to understand the history of ancient humans in Asia, deserves to enter the World Heritage list.

Before and just after becoming reality, this project had to be strongly supported for many years by senior Indonesian scientists and boosted by Edy Sedyawati, the archeology professor who was a director general of culture as well as by specialists of the site.

The government at the national, provincial and regency levels, from the state minister for tourism and culture to the regent of Sragen, have demonstrated their concern for the conservation and the development of this treasure. Their concern is also shared by scientists and of the UNESCO.

As researchers who worked on the site for so many years -- and therefore love it -- we can barely disguise our enthusiasm to see so many people endeavoring to work together for the development of the site.

Two noticeable events are to be highlighted in that view: The international seminar organized by the government and UNESCO in April last year and the visit of State Minister of Tourism I Gede Ardika to the site last August, together with regent Untung Wiyono.

But the more complex a site, the more difficult it is to ensure its development. Sangiran cannot be said to be a "normal" world heritage site, it is a place full of secrets but the smallest part of them. Natural sites like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam must see their natural character protected (ecology, biodiversity, etc). Architectural sites (like Borobudur) must be restored and carefully developed for tourism.

But what is there in Sangiran? Merely hills, fields and rivers which resemble so much the hills, fields and rivers we enjoy to visit all over beautiful Java. In fact, what is part of our common world heritage is secretly enclosed in the earth: Stones, bones, sands, earth, which are not so beautiful by themselves, but whose beauty lays only in the stories of ancient humankind they tell us.

Basically, Sangiran's "life" depends on scientific research. The researcher's job is to collect the objects (bones, stones, etc) together with all the environmental data, which describes the daily life of our Pithecanthropus -- like ancestors.

In return, the researchers have to comply with various duties. First, all the research teams involved on the site have to meet each other regularly in order to share the work by means of a consistent research planning from which the development of the site can benefit.

Such a global plan is controlled by the government in accordance with the scientific institutions. Second, they have the duty to help conserve the data they excavate (including the collections of fossils and artifacts) and make them accessible to other scientists.

Third, they have to bring to the public the synthesis of their work, to communicate their results to everybody by helping the exhibitions programmed by the curators of the museum. Last, they have to contribute by their authorized advice to the protection and conservation of the site.

Curators of the museum and of the site have also an invaluable responsibility in the protection and the development of the site, the collections and the data. They are in permanent contact with people living on or visiting the site to whom they have to explain the richness of the Sangiran patrimony and how to comply with protection regulations and limitations.

The government, specifically the regency, is in charge of the site, which is an outstanding responsibility. They have to fulfill together the needs of the national, provincial and regency policy for cultural, economic and social development. They have to accommodate the needs of locals -- roads, buildings, fields, etc -- with those of the tight protection of the site.

It is not always easy but definitely necessary to make so many actors work together in harmony. Any decision concerning the site cannot be made prior to consulting all the parties, a process which is time-consuming but important.

Fortunately, Indonesia possesses by itself many specialists in the concerned fields. A smaller permanent board involving the government (at the three levels) and the Center for Archaeological Research and conservation institutions can ensure a fast but secure decision-making process, taking into account and evaluating any individual or collective opinions.

This board has to meet quite often in order not to hamper the development of the site, to comply with economic limitations. As Sangiran is already listed as a World Heritage site, important decisions and overall evaluation of the development of the site can also be discussed during, for instance, annual meetings of the larger advisory board already formed under UNESCO's umbrella.

This board is chaired by national officers, but implies also advisers from international research teams who worked for long on the site, as well as specialists from various countries who face similar questions of their own (scientists from the Zhoukoudian Peking Man site are members of this board).

Should those boards meet at the required intervals, debates -- and related smaller misunderstandings -- like that about the building of the vista tower in Pagerejo would really have little chance to exist.

The current situation offers an unique opportunity for the sake of Sangiran conservation, scientific, touristic and economic development. It is the common responsibility of all the actors not to lose such an opportunity.