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Into Africa
Edward Crocker

Long-time readers of this column -- and I mean those whose Sunday morning boredom has driven them here for at least five years -- may recall my commentary on the 9th International Conference on the Study and Conservation of Earthen Architecture. That meeting was held in Yazd, Iran and was an unqualified success thanks to the flawless organizing by the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization, the exceptionally high quality of the papers presented, and the peerless hospitality of the Iranian people.

In my review of the Yazd proceedings, I commented with some urgency that the next conference should be held in Africa. This was because every country on that continent has a long tradition of earthen building; some of them, like Morocco, Burkina Faso and Mali have earthen monuments, and lots of them, that are simply over the top. Think of the mosque in Djenne prickling with built-in scaffolding; the amazingly decorated homes in Bobo Dioulasso; the massive, multi-story earthen fortresses at the foot of the Atlas Mountains; and the fabled sanctuaries of Timbucktu. Another reason is that even though Africans have always been represented at these conferences, the strictures of distance and money have severely limited their participation. It was time, I thought, to take the conference to them.

I was certainly not the only one of that opinion and I am pleased to report that the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles took up the banner and planted it squarely in the center of one of the world's greatest centers of earthen building; the West African country of Mali. In collaboration with the Mali Ministry of Culture, the conference will host three-hundred or so attendees who will have the opportunity to hear some 125 papers presented on themes ranging from the conservation of archeological sites to the issues of standards and guidelines for new and existing structures. All very exciting if you are, as I am, a bit loony about the beauty and practicality of building with mud.

The organizers of the 10th International Conference on the Study and Conservation of Earthen Architecture invited me to present two papers. The first will review some of our recent work and illustrate the restoration of adobe and stone structures in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota. One of the points I will emphasize is the geographical diversity of adobe structures in the United States; it is not commonly understood that we have such buildings in Wyoming (and upstate New York, for that matter), or that German Ukrainian immigrants built pitched earthen roofs in the northern Great Plains. The point being that earthen architecture has a venerable history and widespread application in even the most harrowing of climates.

My second paper, which is designed as the introduction to a problem in order to advance discussion, deals with the taxonomy of earthen architecture. Sound tedious? It is. But it has become obvious over the years that we don't have a clear idea about all the methods and techniques, nor of all the building typologies that have been evolved through the use of earth. This lack of definition, believe it or not, affects our ability to conserve earthen structures.

A taxonomy is a classification of related objects into an order that allows us to facilitate the retrieval of information, distinguish between varieties of similar things, and help explain the basis of variation among typologically associated items.

Taxonomy, in other words, allows us to place objects in rational order while simultaneously footnoting their distinguishing characteristics. Good taxonomy is what enables naturalists to point at critical issues and identify species that are endangered or disappearing.

In the case of earthen architecture, and of historic structures in general, a good taxonomy would similarly help identify uniqueness, patterns, best representatives, and so on -- all important not only for establishing significance, but also to determine priorities in treatments and protection.

The problem is especially acute on the World Heritage level. This is the UNESCO convention that assigns special recognition to certain sites, both cultural and natural as significant and important to all mankind (in New Mexico we have three World Heritage Sites; Taos Pueblo, Chaco Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns). In order to be able to assess outstanding universal value we need to understand global and cultural contexts, typologies and geographical spreads. One of the big challenges in evaluating nominations to the World Heritage List lies in our inability to say with unwavering certainty that a nominated site is the only one of its kind, the best of its kind or the most representative of its kind.

Just to give you a taste of the diversity, earthen sites range from the defensive trenches of World War I to the circular, communal Hakka houses in southeastern China to the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe to The Square and Compass (a lovely little pub in Purbeck, England).

A good taxonomy, in short, is very likely to accelerate the inscription of earthen architectural sites on the World Heritage List and that, in turn, offers clear advantages for their protection because it validates their importance to funders in both the public and private realms.

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