What are the trends for French archaeology abroad in 2017 ?
Each year, the evaluation of planned missions, which is conducted by the French committee of excavations, reopens detailed discussions on the guiding principles of French archaeological research abroad. Between scientific quality, strategic interest, and adapting to research issues and the specific situation on the ground, what were the main themes of the new selection process ?
The Ministry is making a long-term commitment. Although certain programmes are long-term investments, their relevance is still reassessed on a regular basis to determine whether they should be extended or not. For example, the mission in Petra, one of the most iconic of the French-backed missions, will continue this year with an ambitious programme of architectural studies at the temple of Qasr al-Bint, the façade of which will be restored. The same applies to Angkor, where the excavations which began over 20 years ago will continue via an innovative archaeometallurgy programme.
In collaboration with its partner institutions, the MAEDI is supporting its changing missions, adapting to explore new sites and new challenges. This year, for example, a project which up to now has been in Tonga is being relocated to the archipelago of Vanuatu. In Mexico, Uacúsecha is currently one of the most well advanced projects. Based on the study of the 13th-century emergence of the Tarascan state, a major Mesoamerican state before the Spanish conquest, this year it is shifting towards a more regional approach.
French archaeological missions are much more than research programmes programmes strictly aimed at the academic world - they are major projects which attract much public interest. This year, several missions supported by the MAEDI will be the subject of documentaries (e.g. in Mexico, Namibia) or exhibitions in local or French museums (e.g. missions in Cyprus, Sudan). In 2016, the Apollonia du Pont mission in Bulgaria was included in several national exhibitions and is set to be exhibited at the British Museum and the Hermitage Museum. There are plans for this former port city, which was a Greek colony during ancient times, to then be opened up to visitors.
Innovative methods are essential in order to assess the quality of a mission. In Albania, for example, the Komani mission was extended for four years and is now at a major turning point. Two of its sites, which are located in forested, mountainous areas, will this year be prospected using Lidar (remote sensing using lasers), which opens up prospects which are essential in order for it to continue. The mission provides us with a greater understanding of how medieval societies in the Mediterranean Balkans were organized.
Some of the new projects explore sites which are completely new to French researchers. As part of research into pilgrimages in the Middle East prior to the formation of the Byzantine Empire, the Ma’Moudieh mission is exploring a 6th-century monastic complex in the region of Hebron (Palestinian Territories). This site has not been previously studied by French archaeology. Zimbabwe, a country with major archaeological reserves in Southern Africa, will also host a French archaeological mission for the first time.
As a result of French archaeology’s strong historical roots abroad, the research teams have at their disposal unique on-site resources in terms of archives, collections and human networks. The Ministry is constantly encouraging these scientific and diplomatic links. The mission in Amathus, Cyprus, is not only to continue its research programme by developing new methods like a geographic information system (GIS), but also to develop the mission’s previous excavations, which began over 40 years ago. This solid network allows the Ministry to build bridges between missions, so that results can be regularly compared, which constantly increases our understanding of the past.
The 2017 archaeological missions are maintaining their pioneering role in terms of bilateral relations. Projects with a strong cooperation theme were particularly highly valued, whether they involved contacts with local institutions or directly with communities on the ground. For example, on the other side of the world, one of the French missions enabled ties to be established with members of the Iñupiat people on the northern and northwestern coasts of Alaska, by seeking to trace the origins of their culture.
Finally, despite the turbulent security situation, work in risk-prone areas will continue. The Near and Middle East are the true birthplace of French archaeology, which began in Mesopotamia in the 19th century. As a result, protective measures have been renewed for the missions most under threat, in Iraq, Syria and Libya in particular. But this tradition of research has also been renewed through new programmes to take place in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Security conditions permitting, a new mission will open at the Al-Qusayr site in Najaf Governorate to study the successive phenomena of the emergence of Christianity in the Sasanian Empire and Islamization.