Professor Robin Coningham holds the UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage at Durham University.
Professor Robin Coningham has joined over 20 international missions for UNESCO and has conducted field research in Bangladesh, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. He is currently Professor of Archaeology at the University of Durham and his research interests include the archaeological visibility of early Buddhism, the trade in illicit antiquities, and the relationship between identity, cultural heritage and archaeological research.
Since 2011 he has co-directed UNESCO sponsored excavations and surveys at the World Heritage Site of Lumbini and neighbouring sites in Nepal where Professor Coningham and his archaeological team have produced evidence to suggest that the birth date of Buddha was 300 years earlier than previously thought.
Recognised as one of the 10 world archaeological discoveries in 2014 by the Archaeological Institute of America’s Archaeology Magazine, Professor Coningham stated that:
“This recognition is a testament to the global significance of the historical Buddha and his teachings. It also confirms the value of the science-based methodological approach to the archaeology of early Buddhism utilised by the international team of researchers”.
Contributing firm dates and evidence for the early years of Buddhist practice, which had varied according to different oral traditions, the site at Lumbini offers an important heritage focus with the potential to create both greater economic opportunities and a stronger sense of community.
This is particularly valuable in Nepal, which is a UK-focus for aid and development, a concern shared by UNESCO who have prioritised it as a Least Developed Country in Post-Conflict recovery. Moreover, the impact of the April 2015 earthquake on tourist derived income in the Kathmandu Valley makes a diversified focus in Nepal’s south all the more timely.
Professor Robin Coningham has studied the relationship between identity and cultural heritage in regions of conflict and has contributed in an expert capacity to UNESCO’s appeal to protect, preserve and present the heritage of the Greater Lumbini Area – a mobilisation which will complement infrastructure investment to facilitate predicted annual increases in pilgrims to 5 million by 2020.
However, methodologies and toolkits for comparing social and ethical impacts of archaeology are often less developed than economic ones. Although cultural heritage and archaeology are drivers for Creative Economies that contribute to sustainable development, the imbalanced promotion of heritage can serve to alienate communities, generate conflict and lead to the destruction of heritage.
Through the new UNESCO Chair, Professor Coningham is seeking to develop debates, methodologies, policies and toolkits to evaluate the economic, as well as the ethical and social impacts of cultural heritage. This will help to strengthen the protection of such sites in crisis and conflict situations, and prevent its use to exacerbate differences and tensions.
UNESCO’s 2002 Cultural Diversity Declaration recognises culture as a right and reinforces the ethical aspect of Professor Coningham’s research to promote concepts of stewardship and an awareness for the ethical and social impacts involved in the promotion of heritage, particularly at living religious and pilgrimage sites. Together, UNESCO and Professor Robin Coningham have been instrumental in informing debates and policies with professional standards and responsibilities in mind.
Reflecting on these contributions, Professor Coningham stated that:
“The award of this important UNESCO Chair to Durham has facilitated the transformation of a series of independent yet innovative field projects across South Asia into a major programe of research and training underpinned by a multidisciplinary research methodology. Combining research with a distinct focus on the protection, preservation and presentation of living religious sites across South Asia, we are developing and sharing tools to evaluate the economic, social and ethical benefits of individual heritage sites as well as management guidelines to assure their future”.