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Voyages d’une Parisienne au Népal (PhD student research in Nepal)

I was an undergraduate and later an MA student in the Department of Archaeology here in Durham and, after an interval of a few years in Paris, I am now back as a PhD student. One of the (many) reasons why I have kept coming back to Durham is the opportunities that I have been given here to get involved in a variety of projects, ranging from field walking in Spain to archaeological excavations in the Northeast and in Egypt but also internships in museums or with heritage consultant firms. My undergraduate dissertation eventually led me to Nepal where I joined the Durham team working on a UNESCO/Japanese-funds-in-Trust project at the World Heritage Site of Lumbini – nothing less than the birthplace of the Buddha!

I have been back in Nepal many times since, sometimes working in the region of Lumbini (the Western Terai) and sometimes working in the Kathmandu Valley, always with the Department’s UNESCO Chair.

Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha (photo credit: Ira Block, National Geographic)

Bridging the ancient and the modern at Nepali archaeological sites

While the archaeologists conduct excavations and surveys at the sites, my contribution is usually to collect information on the modern social, economic and religious uses of these archaeological sites by visitors, residents and other local stakeholders. The objective is to inform management and future developments at the sites, especially to identify opportunities to strengthen the links between site managers and resident communities and encourage economic and/or social benefits for the local populations.

I went back to Nepal again last year, at the start of my PhD, as part of two UNESCO Chair’s multi-disciplinary projects funded through the AHRC/Global Challenge Research Fund: one project focused on the protection of the Western Terai cultural heritage threatened by rapid infrastructure development, and the second on post-disaster archaeology and site protection in the Kathmandu Valley, following the devastating Gorkha earthquakes of April-May 2015. We are now coming to the end of both projects, with the results being presented and discussed in a final workshop in Kathmandu between 3-7 September. The Oriental Museum will also host a photographic exhibition Resilience within the Rubble on archaeological research at Kasthamandap temple in Kathmandu from 29 Sept 2017 to 28 Jan 2018.

Interview in a Tharu Village in the Western Terai. The Tharus are one of the indigenous groups from the Terai

Western Terai: Site protection and community engagement

As part of earlier projects in the Lumbini region, I had already been working with the help of volunteers and students from Tribhuvan University to collect information on local communities living around archaeological sites, using existing documents and reports but also our own data collected through household surveys, inventory of tourism businesses and stakeholders’ interviews. We had also started to collect benchmark data on visitors at some of the sites.

The AHRC/GCRF-funded project offered the opportunity to build on this work by involving a broader network of Nepali heritage practitioners, local stakeholders, and national and international experts from different fields in the social sciences. I had the chance to work with Prof Nick Lewer (who used to be at the School of Governance and International Affairs here in Durham), to organise a community consultation alongside our excavations at a site called Dohani. Our survey team was composed of local teachers, site managers, and local development officers. Beyond the information that we collected on the communities living around the site, we were able to get to know key individuals and organisations and build a local network especially within local schools which has helped us to develop an approach to communicate the results of our research locally and hopefully engage local residents in the future protection and monitoring activities at the site.

Dohani Community Consultation, household interviews, and end of day debriefing

Post-disaster archaeology in Kathmandu

The approach that we are currently developing in our post-earthquake research in Kathmandu builds on the experience that we have gained in the Terai although the nature of community engagement here is different. In our pilot season, in October/November 2015, I did interviews to document the sequence of events immediately after the earthquake at the sites where we were doing excavations. The information collected fed into a ‘Post-Disaster Heritage Response Handbook’ that the UNESCO Chair has produced based on the field seasons and the experience gained in Kathmandu.

Now we enter a second phase in the post-earthquake research in Kathmandu, looking forward at the rehabilitation of damaged heritage. A new project is starting this September, funded by the British Academy and involving Durham Archaeology but also Durham School of Engineering and Computer Science, Stirling and Bradford Universities. The aim of the project is to provide tools to evaluate the resistance of historic buildings and traditional architecture against earthquakes and mitigate potential risks while also preserving their authenticity and traditions. Beyond the academic expertise, this project, therefore, involves working closely with and collecting the knowledge of residents, craftspeople and businesses about monument’s traditional processes and their intangible value.

While this is for me unfamiliar grounds, I look forward to working with the multidisciplinary team and learning from them but also from our interviewees in Kathmandu about the modern values of these living archaeological sites and their links with intangible heritage, including crafts traditions, social structures, and religious traditions.

Public debriefing in Kathmandu, at the end of our pilot project in Oct-Nov 2015

Reconstruction of a temple in Bhaktapur Durbar Square









If you’re interested in this project, make sure to visit the temporary photographic exhibition at the Oriental Museum Resilience within the Rubble on archaeological research at Kasthamandap temple in Kathmandu (29 September 2017 – 28 January 2018).

You can also look up the UNESCO Chair website for more information on the projects I have been referring to. Please click on the links below to access the projects’ pages:

Anouk LaFortune

Hi, I’m Anouk, a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology. My research is related to cultural heritage management and focuses on community engagement, tourism and the social and economic impact of heritage. On fieldwork, I can usually be found talking to visitors, residents or other local stakeholders, on site or (even better!) in the nearest tea shop.
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