Visitors can have beneficial effects on the preservation of prehistoric sites, contrary to common belief, a study on the impact of COVID-19 closures has shown.
Among the “surprising” findings, they can reduce risks of damaging avian and rodent activity on Malta’s megalithic temples.
It would have been expected that the closure of the sites during the pandemic would have had a positive effect in terms of visitor impact, with the biggest change being the lack of them.
But while the most obvious effect of COVID-19 on the prehistoric monuments was the elimination of negative visitor impact, the unprecedented situation has also demonstrated that their presence can benefit the sites too and not only from a financial point of view.
Carried out by archaeologists Josef Caruana, Elaine Debono, Katya Stroud and MariaElena Zammit, from the Prehistoric Sites Department of Heritage Malta, the study on the physical, economic, social and conservation impacts on the Unesco World Heritage Sites during COVID-19 has shown that they also need visitors for their long-term preservation by inadvertently disturbing animal activity.
Their noise and activity act as a deterrent for pests, which can damage the remains, the curatorial team behind the paper found.
During the pandemic, birds perched in areas they did not frequent before, such as walkway handrails, and the increase in avian activity resulted in many more nestlings and fledglings falling from nests, staining and damaging the limestone due to the impact and attracting rodents and other pests.
An increase in burrowing activity was also observed in the walls and floors of the megalithic remains in rural sites, which could potentially destabilise them, weakening the surrounding areas and foundations.
On the other side of the coin, with no visitors on site as the island was closed to tourists and the temples closed to locals, the risks of vandalism and damage caused by brushing against and touching surfaces were eliminated.
Open-air oases for the well-being of the community
However, visitor impact could still be observed just outside the confines of the sites, where litter increased in the car parks of the Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Archaeological Park, in particular.
Apart from highlighting the effect of the pandemic on archaeological sites in central Mediterranean islands, which are heavily reliant on tourism, the study also showed the important role of open-air sites within the local community.
With the closure of recreational establishments, locals started frequenting these areas more often, rediscovering and reclaiming the surrounding landscape, the paper observed.
This experience has offered “fresh insight into the megalithic temples’ role of offering natural, open-air oases for the well-being of the community and has brought this aspect of site management into focus”.
Financially, the megalithic temples suffered losses in visitor expenditure, which, in 2020, was down to around 30% of 2019 figures.
The megalithic temples are among the most visited, with Heritage Malta’s museums and sites seeing 1.66 million paying visitors in 2019.
The almost exclusive dependence of the site’s income on international visitors diminished their sustainability and has shown the importance of diversifying revenue streams, the authors pointed out.
The study has also resulted in other “surprising” observations, including the speed at which vegetation on pathways regenerated and took over the surfaces, meaning they were no longer disturbed.
Vegetation ensures that soil surfaces are consolidated, protecting them from erosion, which, in turn, limits the amount of wind-blown soil that may settle on the megalithic surfaces and lead to their degradation, the curators explained.
Considering the beneficial physical changes, they pointed out that, by stabilising the soil surfaces, vegetation also protected against accidental exposure of any underlying archaeological remains.
The brief reprieve from pollution in some sites, although temporary, was welcome, the curators said. But although pollutants seem to have decreased during the COVID-19 closures, some had merely reverted to 2018 levels, leaving negligible long-term beneficial effects.
Heritage Malta sites were closed on March 14, 2020 and those considered open spaces reopened to the public on June 13 as COVID cases declined.
The curators observed that even though open-air archaeological sites are less high-risk than enclosed spaces, their reopening was left to the end, a reflection of the perception that they are primarily attractions for foreign visitors and not deemed essential rather than a public health concern.
Looking at the bright side, these unprecedented events were turned into an “opportunity” to work on maintenance, interpretation and conservation projects, which would have otherwise disturbed visitor flows.
The pandemic, the report concluded, was also an opportunity for staff to invest in professional development.
Despite the considerable economic impact of the COVID-19 closures, renewed investment in the site’s workforce would help ensure a swift recovery, the authors maintained.
The findings also affected the way sites reopened to the public, with restrictions and additional safety measures.
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