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2009 Co-operation between Palestine and Leiden Archaeology renewed

On 8 June the Faculty of Archaeology and the Department of Antiquity and Cultural Heritage (DACH) of the Palestine Ministry of Tourism and Antiquity signed an agreement in Ramallah on the West Bank. The aim of the agreement is renewed and sustainable co-operation in the field of archaeology.

Thirteen years of co-operation

Joint Palestine-Leiden excavations at the site of Khirbet Bal’ama. 

There has been co-operation between the DACH and the Faculty of Archaeology since 1996, when the faculty responded positively to the request from the Netherlands delegation in Palestine to help with setting up the newly founded Palestine Department of Antiquities (PDA, now known as DACH). The co-operation was aimed at building up Palestinian expertise by organising training sessions, developing scientific archaeological research, exploring archaeological sites, procuring materials, and enhancing awareness among the population. In the course of time, other parties, such as Leiden's National Cabinet of Coins and Medals, Utrecht University and the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam participated in the co-operation on an incidental basis.

System of settlement and relations

The first project – 1996-2002 - focused on the Khirbet Bal’ama site, located more than a hundred kilometres north of Ramallah on the West Bank. Dr Gerrit van der Kooij, who has been involved since the start of the partnership, comments: ‘The area is interesting as a way of understanding the system of settlement in North Palestine from the Early Bronze Age. Archaeological research in the area and on this site provides important information about the change from village life to urban communities, as well as about the relation between the Israelites and Canaanites in a later period, and the Crusaders even later.' Stratigraphical information (about the different soil layers), the pottery remains from the excavations and surface explorations are important for this study. 

Military presence

A larger part of Khirbet Bal’ama.

In the early stages, the research was funded by the Ministry for Development Co-operation. Promoting scientific research was not the only aim. 'It was equally important to build up expertise and to increase the involvement of the local population in the work and in local history.' As part of the project two excavations took place and a brief surface exploration was made. Palestinian and Dutch archaeologists and students worked together on the project. Two Dutch PhD researchers were also involved, in particular in exposing part of a water tunnel. 

The third excavation, which was due to start in 2000, proved not to be possible because of the military presence on the site and the limited possibilities of travelling in the West Bank region. But the material excavated up to that date was brought to Ramallah, where it was inventoried, catalogued and studied. The project resulted in two publications:  A Hoard of Silver Coins at Qabatiya (2006) and The Water Tunnel System at Khirbet Bal’ama (2007). In total, four publications are expected. 

More exchanges and projects

The DACH has now acquired a firm place in the Palestinian establishment. In spite of the difficult circumstances, all parties agree that it is time to renew the co-operation, with more possibilities for exchanges by students and staff and more regular projects that meet the Dutch requirement for building capacity and expertise. The aims of the co-operation between the DACH and the Leiden Faculty of Archaeology are in fact no different from in 1996, but by building on the experiences of the past thirteen years, the co-operation can be raised to a new level. Both the structure and the quality of the work carried out as part of the partnership have developed in the right direction, and the aims are now more crystallised: capacity build-up and management of the cultural heritage.

Ideal aspect

After signing the agreement (Memorandum of Understanding) on 8 June in the museum of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities in Ramallah, the partners shake hands. From l to r: Dr Hamdan Taha (General Director of the Department of Antiquities), Dr Khouloud Daibes (Minister for Tourism and Antiquities of the Palestinian Authorities), Professor Willem Willems (Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology), and Harry Putker, (First Secretary of the Dutch delegation at the Palestinian Authority, responsible for funding).

Capacity build-up has two main aims: investment in people (practical work combined with theory in the area of fieldwork, analysis techniques, interpretation, documentation, reporting and publishing) and resources (tools, library facilities and computer applications). 

As regards the management of the cultural heritage, in Palestine this is primarily focused on the relation between cultural heritage and society. Van der Kooij: ‘It is not only a matter of preserving sites and objects (including in museums), but also of raising public awareness for democratising archaeological and historical knowledge. The eventual aim is to engender a feeling of responsibility for the cultural remains and the historical and social identity or identities of the population. New media will certainly play a role in this process.'  

One firm benefit of these shared activities is that Dutch and Palestinians get to know and understand one another better. Giving the co-operation more structure will have a positive effect. 

Wish list

Within the context of the agreement, a wish list has been made of projects that serve these aims. On the one hand these are projects or part-projects that were started previously and that have yet to be completed, such as concluding the two remaining publications on the Khirbet Bal’ama project, for example. Another project that has to be finished is Khan el-Bireh. The Palestinians restored this monumental, ruined building in 1999, intending to convert it into an archaeological field school. It really is time for this school to be completed now, with modest lab facilities, provisions for study and access for the public to the library and temporary exhibitions. On the other hand, there is also the need for new projects that reflect the agreed objectives. A subsidy application is currently being prepared by the partners in the co-operation, together with UNESCO, for one of the most important archaeological sites in the region, namely Tell Balata (Sichem) in the region of Nablus, to produce a ‘heritage management plan’, including archaeological research.

Joint teaching and fieldwork

A pot containing silver coins found in a cave at the site. The first publication in the project was about this find (2006). 

The emphasis in the exchange will be on joint teaching in Palestine by Leiden teachers and local colleagues, and participation in field research by Leiden and local students. Palestinian researchers will also come to Leiden for specialist course teaching, although to a more limited degree; Palestinian students also have the option to take part in Dutch fieldwork. Palestinian PhD students are also interested in coming to Leiden, and the possibilities for facilitating this are currently being studied.

New spearheads

The DACH and Leiden University both have to invest in the co-

The stepped water tunnel, the subject of the second publication (2007).

operation financially, albeit to a limited extent: the Dutch government, in the form of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is supporting the two main objectives, namely the exchange and implementation of projects, in the context of two new spearheads in local programmes: culture and identity.  

The partnership between Leiden and the DACH does not signify competition for the Palestinian universities: the DACH is building a scientific archaeology network that stands for academic freedom and that aims to serve the universities in the region. 

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