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Managing the Managers: State control over the monuments in Estonia

Ulla Kadakas and Anu Lillak

Cite this as: Kadakas, U. and Lillak, A. 2020 Managing the Managers: State control over the monuments in Estonia, Internet Archaeology 54.

1. Introduction

There are more than 6700 archaeological monuments listed in Estonia today (see The National Register of Cultural Monuments). In addition to these, protection of the archaeological heritage is also included within other types of monuments (architectural or historic) that have archaeological signifiance, for example, historic churches, castles, manors and towns. As well as those listed, approximately 1200 archaeological sites are registered and waiting to be listed. Archaeological monuments comprise prehistoric, medieval and historical dwelling sites, strongholds, places related to agriculture and early industry, burial sites from the Stone Age to Early Modern eras, sacred places and groves, cup-marked stones, listed shipwrecks and other loci that have been altered during the course of human activities (e.g. bog roads; Kadakas 2017).

2. Condition of Archaeological Sites

The majority of Estonian archaeological sites have structures below the ground, with little visible on the surface in the landscape. The vulnerability of a site is determined by its type and current use. Monuments in areas with active use (e.g. fields, settlements, mines) are considered rather endangered, while sites in remote areas without intensive land use or monuments of high local importance are less likely to be damaged.

The occupation layers of rural dwelling sites, for example, are rather thin and mainly characterised by potsherds, animal bones, and other household waste, as well as charcoal and burnt stones from the ovens and hearths. Structural remains of the dwelling sites, in most cases, no longer survive. This is largely due to the fact that, until the 13th century, buildings were constructed from horizontal timber logs without solid stone foundations, or had dry-stone walls without mortar. Another reason for the incomplete nature of the occupation layers and the scarcity of finds at dwelling sites is the poor condition of the sites in question. In many cases, prehistoric dwelling sites are located in areas of intensive agricultural use, or share their locations with historic villages, all of which have contributed to their vulnerability.

Archaeological sites are better preserved in areas where they are more visible in the landscape or where later occupation and land use has been less intensive. For example, in the case of monumental sites like hill-forts and large burial cairns, dry-stone walls have often been preserved. In historic towns, fully preserved, intact cellars, walls and even upper storeys are sometimes found hidden in the later rubble and masonry. In cases where such structures are discovered, there are often tense negotiations between different stakeholders in terms of what should and can be preserved and displayed and how the site should be managed.

3. Management and Use

The state itself is often among the owners, not as the National Heritage Board (NHB) but in the role of other state agencies, for example, the State Forest Management Centre, State Real Estate, museums, etc. Therefore, usually, the main goal of the state is to manage the primary economic resources, with archaeological heritage seen as an obstacle. Management of the sites is also complicated as the size of the monuments (0.8–40 hectares) often means there are several owners and a common management scheme is challenging.

The new Heritage Conservation Act (HCA) that came into effect on 1 May 2019 has a better grasp of the concept of heritage, its values, and principles of heritage preservation. For archaeological heritage, the Act now states that, in addition to their scientific value, archaeological monuments are also important for understanding the multiple layers of cultural landscape (HCA 2019, § 11). This means that archaeological monuments are considered not only as scientifically important but are recognised as integral parts of the cultural landscape itself.

The use and exploration of monuments and the cultural landscape is permitted for everyone from dawn until dusk. In cases where the monument is situated within someone's property, the visitor must ask the homeowner's permission for access and the proprietor has the right to ask for a fee (HCA 2019, § 41). Nevertheless, most archaeological monuments are situated on agricultural or forest lands, where access is already free and the law is on the side of the visitor. The problem in remote areas is that since there is no infrastructure connected with the sites, most of the archaeological monuments will probably remain only a niche attraction, rarely visited by anyone else but archaeologists. Every county also has at least five to ten larger sites that are seen as potential tourist attractions. However, in order to promote them and attract visitors, they need appropriate infrastructure and interpretation.

4. Upgrading the Monuments

Enhancements to a monument must prioritise its preservation, even if the site is to be used for modern purposes. New additions must appreciate the existing values and, if possible, meet the needs of potential visitors with specific needs (HCA 2019, § 3). People responsible for the site - a private landowner, an institution or the local community - can decide if and to what extent they want to present or display it. So far, most of the improvements have been project-based, encompassing the particular ambitions and needs of the project managers.

There are no state guidelines, but the NHB coordinates activities concerning the monuments. All the restoration, renovation as well as exposition projects have to be approved by the board. In order to be approved, projects need to be prepared to the highest contemporary standard based on best practice (HCA 2019, § 43). If needed, the NHB can also help with expertise or finances, but does not carry out any plans or projects itself.

4.1 Best practice

All of the projects concerning monuments have to be based on best practice. The concept of best practice is rather abstract, as there are no published guidelines and it is context dependent. The objectives of heritage protection in Estonia have also changed radically during the last few decades. The delay in actively using the principles of Venice Charter can be explained by the fact that the first Estonian joined ICOMOS in 1978 as the representative of the Soviet Union and ICOMOS National Committe of Estonia was not created until 1993 (Alatalu 2010). At the moment the advice is to conserve and preserve the sites in the form that they have reached in modern times. Nevertheless, reconstruction was the most popular choice as recently as 30 years ago, still creating confused expectations among those people wishing to see 'nice and proper' reconstructions rather than conserved ruins.

It is understandable that ruins attract fewer visitors than roofed structures, but nowadays, the goal of heritage protection is to show how the site has reached the present day; new buildings must be distinctive, suitable for the environment, not dominate the monument(s) and the additions must be reversible (Venice Charter 1964, Articles 9-13). In archaeology, hill-forts and fortresses are the most visited sites and often used for gatherings; therefore, the pressure to enhance, rebuild or reconstruct definitely exists. Even though the NHB has agreed upon some guiding principles, best practice and solutions are discussed separately for each project.

5. Recent Developments and Projects

In recent years, there have been several large-scale development plans on different archaeological monuments. Most of the projects have not been carried out as the NHB has not approved of large parts of the proposals. These are briefly discussed below with some examples.

5.1 Medieval castles

The medieval stone castle at Rakvere was used as a museum, and a rebuild and the addition of structures to extend the roofed exhibition and activity space was desired. The additions were to be constructed using wooden planks, which would make it both reversible and readily distinguishable from the original masonry. The problem was that the medieval castle already had several reconstructed towers and walls from the earlier 20th century (some parts of which were definitely based on the architects' imagination), although most of the restoration had been carried out according to historical documentation and embraced the preserved structures. Many of the proposed additions, even though reversible, would have covered up these historical layers and added something that had never existed. Therefore, the National Heritage Board was not able to agree with the museum to create extra amenities on the castle site.

Several other medieval stone castles were preserved in a much better state and did not require radical restoration works to achieve a roofed building. However, in one example, the restoration architects decided to change the appearance according to their vision of the castle during a specific era. The Bishop's Castle in Kuressaare was fairly intact prior to the restoration works in the 1970s, but during the restoration project from 1971, the Medieval form of the castle was restored, a buttress was added and one of the corner towers was built higher. This would not be acceptable by today's standards, but as this was something already in existence and its demolition would damage the state of the medieval structures, it will most probably remain as it is. In contrast to the slightly excessive restorations of the 1970s, the moat and bastions of the castle were cleaned of vegetation for display purposes and recent restoration of the bastions was conducted according to the highest contemporary standards. Changes to the bastion zone have been both delicate and necessary owing to health and safety regulations.

5.2 Underground structures

In addition to above-ground architecture, the location of walls and structures that are known, but no longer visible, can be marked with structures displayed in different ways. It is mostly understood that reconstruction is not always necessary in order to comprehend earlier development stages or show the grandeur of historical structures. After World War II bombings, some facades of the ruined houses in the city centres were not demolished, but many neighbourhoods were torn down. Nowadays, in most towns, the destroyed building lines are marked on the pavement. In Tallinn, a whole medieval street called Nõelasilm (Needle's Eye), once filled with World War II ruins, was excavated and restored in 2007, adding a medieval milieu to the Old Town area that was most affected by the bombings (Tamm 2003).

5.3 Hill-forts and ruins

In addition to the medieval towns, there are several projects aiming to enhance the visitor's experience of prehistoric hill-forts. The State Forest Management Centre has chosen a more subtle way to add or repair modern infrastructure and information boards (see The "Lights On!" project). Some communities want to do more, and even though the goal is well intentioned, the execution of the proposed projects would create 'reconstructions' of structures that may never have existed, damage the actual monument, or drastically change its character.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Vastseliina 'Pilgrim house' and Episcopal Castle ruins. Image: Ulla Kadakas

A good example is the ruined Episcopal Castle in Vastseliina (Figure 1) where extra museum space was created with a new visitor centre, the 'Pilgrim House', to one side of the castle site (but on a surprisingly large cemetery) (Figure 1). With the emphasis on pilgrimage, there were plans to restore and cover the ruins of the Holy Cross Chapel, but as the remaining walls turned out to be too fragile (Lissitsina et al. 2016), the chapel area was filled with sand and conserved. The holy site was instead reconstructed on the conserved ruins as a flat stage area with a simple cross and altar. The maintenance and integrity of the monument are just as important as the visitor experience with new additions, and turning an archaeological site into a theme park should be avoided.

6. Conclusion

It would seem that archaeological monuments are accessible, but often not attractive enough for the general public. The monuments often cover a large area, meaning that there are several owners, all with different ideas on what to do with the site. Building tradition in combination with later extensive land use has resulted in a fragile and poorly preserved preservation of occupation layers in rural areas.

While trying to make the monuments more attractive and enhance the accessibility, owners often plan actions that are potentially damaging to the site, or want to reconstruct something that has never been there. Restoration principles have changed quite drastically during the last few decades, and have been poorly explained, so the expectations of owners and developers are often very different from those of heritage officials. As the NHB offers mainly consultation, but almost no financial support in terms of project implementation, it is difficult to find a balanced solution for each project and monument.

Internet Archaeology is an open access journal based in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

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