Dili -Last week on eBay a search for East Timor would have come up with a black, wooden, hand-carved statue of a male, not quite a metre high. At 150 US dollars it was by far the most expensive object from East Timor, and one might have wondered why. Perhaps it was only a replica of a centuries-old sacred clan totem believed to represent ancestors. Or, maybe it was the real thing.
Either way, it’s gone now.
In East Timor, one of the poorest countries in Asia, everything -even the sacred – has a dollar value. With poorly enforced protection laws foreign sales of Timorese artefacts are not rare on eBay. Though eBay isn’t the only way Timor loses its history.
Peter Lape, the curator of archaeology of the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been making trips back and forth to Timor since 2002. Through his field work studying early rock art and fortified settlements and the work of a handful of others it has been established that East Timor has been peopled for at least 40,000 years and likely well before then.
Today, a number of archaeologists believe that the first Australians, Timor’s southern neighbour, were in fact Timorese.
“I was drawn to Timor-Leste because it is historically important to the region and the world,” Lape said. “It was a place of earliest human migrations from Africa to Australia and New Guinea.”
As the centre of this Asia-Pacific crossroads, Timor is an important key in the history of human migration, “when we know more about these early Timorese then we will know more about the early settlers of Australia.”
Lape has been questioning: Why is Timor-Leste so different from Indonesia, and especially Maluku? How have people adapted to Timor-Leste’s unique climate and geography?
But to answer these questions is a race against time and progress. In 1999 East Timor broke free after 24 years of Indonesian occupation. It was an occupation known for its secrecy. Westerners, feared to be spies, journalists or pro-Timorese activists, were not especially welcome in the province. Much archaeological work was put on pause during those years.
Now, trying to catch up, Lape says he can see valuable sites disappear as the country opens up to the world and readjusts itself after 24 years of conflict.
“Sites are everywhere, but people often don’t recognize them when they are building things – or if they do, only after it is too late to save them,” he said.
Since 2005 Lape has been studying the ruins of a 5,000-year-old village at the eastern tip of the island. The site is as far from Dili, East Timor’s capital, as one can get – there is no phone service, electricity or internet, but only jungle and sea, fishing villages and farmland.
In these parts the biggest threat to preservation is not eBay – it’s the locals.
“The site I worked on in Ira Ara, for example, was already half destroyed because people had been digging away at it to get stones and soil to build a small chapel,” he said.
The Timorese government is responding to these threats. In August most of the districts in which Lape works were dedicated as the Nino Konis Santana National Park – East Timor’s first.
Pedro Pinto, the director of the park, said the government is making an effort to protect everything it can through better local awareness and management.
“We are preparing a plan for management of the [archaeological] sites,” Pinto said. “This will be a guide to preserving the sites for future managers.”
In August Pinto hired Adelino Rogario to conduct awareness trainings for the 10,000 estimated Timorese living within the national park.
Unlike national parks in many developed countries which are empty of villages, East Timor’s national park is speckled throughout with isolated collections of thatched huts. Rogario said those communities, scattered across mountain, marsh and jungle, are needed.
The park is 126,000 hectares big and is currently overseen by only a handful of forest guards. So Rogario conducts his trainings to get communities on board as a vital first line of protection.
“These sites are something valuable to the Timorese, something which is ours,” said Rogario. “But first we must protect, then conserve and then promote.”
That is, once the sites are found. Rogario said that he estimated there are many archaeologically important sites still nestled in mountain crags or smothered by the virgin lowland rainforest.
Even as Timor seeks to protect these wild, historically vital areas, the country is eager to develop.
In the middle of the district is a large lake that has been picked as the site for a hydroelectric power plant and each year the nation spends more on roads and bridges which bring jobs to impoverished local economies and perhaps later, hundreds of tourists.
Preserving the past is a race against the future, Lape said. Tourists can bring poorly planned development schemes and, too often, looters of archeological sites.
“Looting of objects for sale has been a growing problem in South-East Asia, during Indonesian times and even now, many cultural objects were stolen and sold on the global antiquities market,” said Lape.
Nuno Oliveira, an advisor to the secretary of state for culture, is leading a team of Timorese across the country armed with GPS devices with which he says they will collect data on sites of historical and cultural significance and store it online.
The locations of the oldest, most sacred places in Timor will be recorded and then the sites will be assessed in terms of importance to the community and antiquity, among other criteria.
But Oliveira is a realist and he said despite his work change is slow and in coming years even more sites could be destroyed or badly damaged. It gives his work urgency.
“At least we’ll have some information out there, before this stuff is destroyed forever,” he said.
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