In this week’s blog Dr Olwen Purdue, Director of the Centre for Public History, discusses her latest project which aims to encourage engagement with heritage among marginalised communities in Dhiban, Jordan:
Heritage is an inheritance from a people’s past, a legacy to be protected, nurtured, and handed on. However, heritage can also be divisive or disempowering. Dominant or hegemonic narratives can drown out the voices of marginalised communities, or those without the means to articulate their particular understandings of their past. This is being addressed in many places with the emergence of public history as an important sub-discipline of history, encouraging collaboration with cultural institutions and the growth of community-led projects. Oral history has likewise emerged as a key methodology for collecting under-represented or less dominant historical narratives and articulating them to a range of audiences. These approaches to understanding the past are making rapid strides in the West, underpinning much important new historical research. They are, however, much less familiar in many parts of the Middle East, something this project seeks to address as it works among the people of Dhiban, Jordan.
Tall Dhiban is one of Jordan’s most important archaeological sites having been the site of human occupation for around 6,000 years. Located 40 miles south of Amman and 12 miles east of the Dead Sea, this mound, which covers 30 acres and rises to 130 feet in height, was at various times the capital of the biblical kingdom of Moab (according to the Bible, the Israelites stopped here during the Exodus from Egypt), a Nabataean centre during the Roman occupation and a thriving city of the Byzantine Empire. Dhiban was subsequently conquered by the first Islamic caliphs, and then became an important centre of agriculture following the Crusades. The modern-day town of Dhiban, which sits in the shadow of the Tell, has a population of around 15,000 which is composed of peoples from many different backgrounds and origins. Many of these are migrants from Syria and other neighbouring countries, but the largest group are Bedouin from the Bani Hamida tribe who settled here in the 1950s. Economic hardship and social marginalisation is prevalent among these peoples, and their voices are rarely heard in the historical narratives of Dhiban, dominated, as it is, by the formal, academic history of the Tell.
This project seeks to redress this balance, weaving the voices and stories of these communities, the people of modern Dhiban, into the historical interpretation of the Tell. Building on research carried out on a previous Wellcome Trust-funded project on heritage and wellbeing in inner-city Belfast, Heritage Connects, it aims to explore the connection between individual and community engagement with the past, social capital, and wellbeing among marginalised communities. By developing this research in the very different context of rural Jordan, the project will seek to better understand the different ways in which peoples and societies understand, reflect on, and communicate their senses of history and heritage, and explore ways of encouraging greater engagement with people’s own perspectives on the past and those of others. It will also examine the approaches taken to the formal teaching of History in Jordanian schools, and the extent to which, if at all, this facilitates or encourages multiple and diverse narratives to be heard.
One of the principle aims is to encourage engagement with heritage among local communities, and to build capacity among teachers, students, children, and local enthusiasts for capturing and communicating the rich and diverse histories of their people and place. A key element of this will be a local history project, developed with local school teachers and children in Dhiban. A series of workshops in schools will introduce teachers and their classes to methods of collecting and sharing their own histories and those of their families and communities through telling and recording each other’s stories, and digitally capturing images and artefacts. The year-long project will culminate in a community History Harvest event at which the children will launch an exhibition of their own work, and invite members of the community to come along to share their stories of their past and that of their people. At this event, which will coincide with the 15th anniversary celebration of the Tell project, the schoolchildren and their teachers will work alongside the project team and students from Mutah University to digitally capture images, artefacts, and stories from the local community.
Thus, this project hopes to engage the wider community, enabling multiple voices associated with Dhiban to be heard across socio-economic, generational, and gender divides. These perspectives and stories will be integrated with the work being carried out by the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project in the developing of the Tell Interpretive Centre, incorporating local perspectives into the signposting and narratives of the site. It will also build capacity for storytelling and history collection among local communities, allowing their voices to be heard in connection with this internationally-renowned heritage site.
This project is funded by the AHRC Newton-Khalidi fund and is led at Queen’s University Belfast by Dr Olwen Purdue, Director of the Centre for Public History, with Drs Neil Sadler and Sue-Ann Harding, Centre for Translation Studies, and at Liverpool University by project PI, Dr Bruce Routledge, Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, in collaboration with the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project and students from Mutah University.