Traditional local handcrafts- the importance and practicalities of preservation
This article was written for the second convention for the preservation of cultural heritage and is an expansion of my lecture on the matter. Hence, it has been written with slight modifications and specific additions. If you wish to view the lecture please press here (Hebrew with English subtitles)
The article was written in Hebrew and translated by Shani sylov
In Israel, the concept of preservation of heritage is generally linked to the preservation of structural heritage- ancient buildings, archeological sights or points of national significance. This article is attempting to widen the term and stir an awareness for the urgent need to investigate, document and preserve a myriad of traditional crafts that have existed in the region and are gradually becoming extinct. This paper discusses crafts which consist of building, agricultural produce, processing of agricultural produce and the production of objects and tools which in the past, were necessary for everyday living.
Since 1993, I have been investigating a number of such crafts and I wish to raise questions with regards to the preservation of knowledge. Some of the questions which arise with regards to preservation of crafts are comparable to questions that arise with relation to the preservation of buildings and sights whilst others are unique.
Because there is no official organization or body which focuses on the preservation of traditional handcrafts, I work alone. I wish to stir a debate on the matter with the hopes of finding partnership and support. The preservation of traditional crafts is a fundamental part of cultural heritage. In the past, various crafts were a significant component of daily living and passing of time in most peoples' lives. Traditional handcrafts from a certain region are an integral part of the local cultural heritage just as traditional handcrafts of a certain ethnic group or nation are an inseparable part of the ethnical and national heritage.
Traditional crafts and the knowledge hidden within them are under threat of extinction. The technological changes sweeping the country in the last hundred years have resulted in the disappearance of customs, traditions and work practices, some of which existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years prior to these changes. some of these skills, especially those which involve the processing of agricultural produce, still take place on a very small scale. Some handcrafts were practiced among the Arab population in Israel up until the fifties and sixties of the previous century, some still take place in the Palestinian Authority territories and some have already disappeared. There is little documentation of these crafts and where it does exist, it refers to "what was done" and not to the actual method of production. Therefore, the technical details about the materials, the tools and the precise method of work, have hardly been documented and are preserved only in the memories of a handful of older persons. As the number of elders who remember a reality where self-sufficient production was the main component in providing for life's needs dwindles, we become more pressed for time. Living knowledge has no substitute, as these elders are the only link to practical skills, The next generations have been brought up in a different reality, and their practical knowledge is usually limited or missing,
Because some of the crafts preserve ancient traditions, understanding the method of production can provide us with insight into the past. This can be vital in understanding the history of the country and deciphering archeological findings. Without knowing the technologies used for production, we might be mistaken in understanding and interpreting findings from the past. Even though it is not always clear whether the living testimonies available at present are a credible account of ancient production methods, familiarizing ourselves with the process might still promote our understanding and highlight unique, novel options. An interesting example- members of a delegation investigating the production of copper in Timna, were debating how the ancient settlers reached a high enough heat for copper production, One of the chaperones, an Ethiopian man, said that if they bring him a goat, he can demonstrate. And so, he made a bellows right there from the goatskin and demonstrated how the Ethiopian blacksmiths increased the heat in their furnace, Understanding the basic production process is imperative in the preservation process as well as the reconstruction of objects or structures.
Preserving cultural diversity
"The diversity of cultures and heritage in our world is an irreplaceable source of spiritual and intellectual richness for all humankind. The protection and enhancement of cultural and heritage diversity in our world should be actively promoted as an essential aspect of human development.
All cultures and societies are rooted in the particular forms and means of tangible and intangible expression which constitute their heritage, and these should be respected."
(Nara document on authenticity 1994)
Local art and handcrafts are an inseparable representation of the tangible culture and spirit of the place and of the connection between man and his environment. Traditional crafts are usually based on local materials or materials which are easy to attain through trade, as well as the unique local ways in which they have been utilized. Local culture is comprised not only of what is considered "elite art" associated with a few individuals in every society, rather it is an expression of the creativity of the simple population and its assorted daily routines.
Local traditions are unique, even within very narrow physical borders, and their preservation expresses protection of cultural diversity, a subject which is becoming more relevant as globalization processes strengthen. Preserving the crafts in their cultural context is an expression of honoring that culture and its bearers. Additionally, teaching the heritage of the various ethnicities in Israel, including that of the Arab minority, indicates recognition of different cultures and can present an opportunity for dialogue and understanding in cases of tension.
Moral order for the next generations:
Over thousands of years, self-sufficient production was key for human survival. Preserving this knowledge is the key to a sustainable life that does not depend on the use of fossil fuels and modern technology. Even if at this point there is no need to use these production methods, the loss of the knowledge might have a heavy price in the future. Preserving this knowledge might be of value for future generations Even if the value of this knowledge is not apparent to us today. The disappearance of knowledge of traditional handcrafts from our world will damage the wealth of the world we bequeath to the next generations. Traditional production methods are a potential source of inspiration.
"In a world swamped with synthetic color, we understand that the natural color cannot replace it but it is important to preserve it as a living alternative alongside it. There is an intimate connection to plants, animals and the earth which give us color. This is the wealth of all our art and traditional design" ( The UNESCO conference for natural dye India, 2006)
What to preserve?
"Cultural heritage of every individual is the cultural heritage of everyone. The responsibility of the legacy of culture and its management belongs first and foremost to the cultural community which created it and after that to the culture which is concerned with it (Nara document on authenticity, paragraph 8).
Questions concerning preserving traditional crafts in Israel include the Arab population crafts as well as the crafts of various Jewish groups. Unfortunately, in both cases, the national interest so far is not in line with the support and encouragement of preserving those handcrafts, as it is done in other countries where the preservation of crafts is in line with national values and hegemonic cultural values.
But in my eyes the crafts of the Arab population largely represent locality and thus preserving them has a lot of value in the context of understanding the local material culture and its attitude towards plants, animals, climate and the land in the country.
The crafts of various Jewish groups represent a disappearing cultural heritage because In many countries the Jews were those who were the craftspersons, sometimes exclusively. For example the silversmiths in Yemen. Their immigration to Israel almost always interrupted the continuation of their work; and even if there was continuity, it was done in line with the new conditions and included compromise with regards to the raw materials, work tools, and cultural connection. National considerations of forming a "melting pot" and creating a unifying culture did not support the preservation of a separate heritage of each Jewish ethnic group. Often, the Jewish craftsmen did not have suitable replacements in their country of origin and so the loss of knowledge was double- In Israel and in their country of origin.
We need to treat the existing sources of knowledge as a resource, both in the Jewish population with its wealth of ethnic backgrounds and of the other various minority populations. Because this resource is disappearing, it is essential that political considerations will not delay saving the last fragment which still exists and which can be a source of living knowledge.
Because it is easier to find living people who still remember their crafts within the Arab population, I will refer mainly to Palestinian local craftsmanship of which I have gathered the most information.
The questions which arise with regards to preserving crafts correlate with tradition, locality, social and cultural context and the questions of authenticity which relate to all of these. The debate around these questions is relevant if a need arises to define standards and criterions for preservation. Additionally, more questions of which I am not currently aware might also arise. In any place, my point is that the preservation of handcrafts must focus also on the actual methods of production.
What is a traditional craft?
Should we attempt to search for the roots of the craft in the distant past? Is it possible and necessary to discover the historical sequence of the craft, which has been preserved since ancient times, or does the fact that it has been performed without any change over few generations and in the same place suffice? How many generations must pass before a craft can be considered a traditional one?
With regards to the legacy of the Israeli nation, many crafts that were performed in the country up until recent generations by Arabs are mentioned in the Mishna or in other ancient literature. There is no way for us to know for certain if there was continuity in the methods of production since the days of the Mishna (or even before) up until our time. Similarly, it is unknown if Palestinian craftsmen and craftswomen have preserved the work methods as mention in ancient literature. Often the Mishna has descriptions that can be understood by comparing them to current methods of work. This supports the basic assumption that such continuity did exist.
With regards to the Arab heritage, this question is of less importance as the various crafts represent the local Palestinian culture without discontinuation in time and some are still anchored in the memory. Moreover, the word "Tourath" in Arabic - legacy- strongly refers to the sum of the crafts and their products.
What is a Local Craft?
How many generations of craft need to exist in a certain place in order to be considered local? Which local characteristics, tangible or spiritual, must exist to be considered local? human history has continuously passed on knowledge, including technical knowledge, from place to place. together with that, "imported" knowledge is adapted to its new surroundings and receives local characteristics. When in this process can the production process be considered unique and as a portrayal of its new place? What does the local portrayal entail and include- The production methodology? the style and design? the materials? These questions can also arise in the field of preservation of buildings when technical skills learned from elsewhere are brought to Israel and implemented locally while turning a blind eye to local, traditional knowledge.
What are the local boundaries? There are traditions that were limited to a narrow geographical region (for example the plow which was not similar in the areas of the hills and the plains) or even within a certain city. Ignoring these differences might distort the understanding of the craft. Therefore, when studying a craft it is essential to comprehend it in its exact local context.
The cultural context of the craft
What are the crafts which reflect the cultural heritage of a certain ethnic group and how should we refer to the different styles or nuances of the craft within the same ethnic group? As the investigation delves deeper we will discover technical differences also within the same population. How precise must we be with the details and when can we generalize and determine one characteristic? Which crafts reflect in the most significant way the cultural heritage of each ethnicity and who can make that decision? For example, the spindle used by the Bedouin women for spinning in the south of Israel is not like the spindle used by the Bedouin women in the north. I know of at least three different kinds of spindles that were in use and the method of work with each one is completely different. Perhaps there are more types of spindles which were in use and of which we have no information. A generalized reference of the most common spindle as the "Bedouin Spindle" is a unification that erases the diversity from the consciousness.
There are crafts, especially those which have decorative characteristics, that their meaning is comprehended only in a certain cultural context of the community which they serve. Preserving the craft without the cultural context will be incomplete. In preserving local crafts we will therefore not only ask technical questions but also meaning, as in the case of the Palestinian embroidery. In this case, we have to pay attention also to the changes which have taken place over time.
The question of authenticity
One of the characters of traditional crafts is lack of changes in overtime or minor changes which are in tune with the natural pace of cultural change. In our times the continuity of traditional creation in its primal and "authentic" way has mostly disappeared. The need to preserve is a testament to that. The meeting of traditional crafts with modernity and rapid technological changes has brought to its demise. This did not happen at once, often there is a transition phase in which the craft preserves its traditional production methodologies, but embraces new materials or new designs or other influences which are manifested in adapting to the new conditions which have been created.
What exists today for many crafts already belongs to this transitional phase just because it refers to people born in the twentieth century. When we want to preserve a craft or a traditional production- to which point of time must we pay attention? Can we try and pay attention to what came before the existing living knowledge based solely on evidence from the past? what is an authentic traditional craft? for example- Can crafts which were developed in Israel in the first place for selling to tourists be considered "real" traditional crafts? commercial or national goals might create a phenomenon of inventing traditions. For this reason, standards and criterions must be set in order to assist in defining a craft or a product as authentic according to various measurements such as material, method of work, design, color, use, cultural context, etc.
Traditional local crafts for preservation
As stated above, a significant part of the local crafts are already lost and do not exist as a living tradition. There are testimonies for part of them or even a living memory of men or women who worked them in the past. Some of these traditions includes: collecting of water, plastering of wells and pools, traditional watering methods, traditional agriculture, traditional processing of agricultural produce. preserving food, traditional cooking, traditional carpentry, processing of wood from an elementary phases, usage of a specific axe, (kadum) installation of a plow and other agricultural tools; working with metals- blacksmithing and preparation of traditional tools, shoeing ; various methods of weaving: production of mats and baskets with different techniques, weaving of stools, ropemaking and producing carrying devices, building huts and other dwelling structures using mats, jewelry making, building with dry stone- agricultural steps, guard buildings; chiseling of stone, production of lime and usage of it; building on the land- preparing of granaries, production of mud ovens( different types), plastering with plaster from soil, building of rooftops from wood beams, reads and ramed earth; production of crockery, processing of the local land for ceramics, leather work- primary processing of the leather, preparation of butter churn from a goatskin; shoe making, preparation of harnesses for animals; spinning and weaving- weaving with a ground loom- for building of a Bedouin tent; weaving with built looms- delicate fabrics to wear, finger weaving- to fit bridles on camels and horses, straps and belts, natural dying; building of traditional instruments and playing them, glass blowing, embroidery, tapestry, knitting, lace and needle work, bead work (crafts which have a more decorative characteristic then a practical one).
How to preserve traditional crafts?
All questions regarding the standardization which defines the traditional craft arises because the act of preservation arises for moral or ethical decisions which are attached to the impact of our actions on the present and the future. Preservation is not a natural action, rather it is a conscious one which seeks to stop at a certain point the sequence of change and destruction and take on an opposing position. Unlike the preservation of buildings, products or artworks which have a static quality to them once they have been built or produced, crafts, being a continuous human activity, are never still. The processes of production are dynamic and are tailored to regions, seasons and to the pace of life. Thus, preserving crafts must be dynamic too. Additionally, preserving crafts must be a practical process. Verbal descriptions or photographic documentations do not suffice. The study has to be done hands-on, practicing the craft, otherwise, its practical value is questionable. That is to say, preserving a craft can only be expressed practically and it shall be preserved as long as the knowledge is passed on.
The most urgent step currently, towards the preservation of the crafts, is locating those with the knowledge who can teach practically their craft, to document the craft including all its aspects and its practical teachings. Philosophical questions will linger with us even after the death of the last of the traditional craftsmen and craftswomen, but our ability to learn from them will be denied. Learning from those skilled craftsmen and women who are still alive today opens new avenues and allows for new understandings of the production processes. Theoretical understanding is not enough because it is missing the practical details which are gained only through practical experience. I have experienced this fact a few times when I failed at attempting to create an object, no matter how detailed the explanation was.
Since 1995, armed with these insights, I have located independently a number of craftsmen and craftswomen in various fields that interested me. I learned from them, watched them work and tried to document the work as best as I could. Taking into consideration the various challenges- budget, social or technical which stood in my way. The crafts I have learned include:
Creating mats using various methods (farmers and Bedouin women from the north), spinning with a suspended spindle, and getting acquainted with two different types of spindles which served Bedouin women in the north of Israel; weaving stools from Typha domingensis basket weaving using various techniques weaving with wheat straw, weaving with a ground loom, finger weaving, processing of leather to make butter churn
Where possible and with recognition of the social value of the occurrence, we held workshops together with some craftspersons. to mention some: A two-week workshop on building a guard hut using a dry stone technique, run by a builder and a stonemason from Beit Jalaa, the details of the workshop are in the following link: Building a guard hut from stone (Hebrew)
Workshops to build a "tabun" (a specific outdoor stove) style, in the South of Mount Hebron. Workshops in the field of food processing which included the making of traditional cheese (Beduin women - north), preparing traditional milk products (South Mount Hebron, Negev) Preparation of traditional products from grapes (farmers- South Mount Hebron). Making blankets and matrasses of raw wool, (Negev Beduin) Weaving on a ground loom (Negev Beduin), learning the "Mrgum" technique of weaving, and others.
The process of learning and organizing the workshops exposed the difficulties in preserving a craft and raised many questions about the ways in which it should be done. Because I've learned many crafts simultaneously, I didn't reach a level of practical skill which satisfies me in all the crafts. Learning a craft has to include enough time for practice, training, and implementation of the knowledge.
Main Approaches to preserving crafts
There are two common approaches to this matter, which may be combined.
1- Preserving for the sake of preserving knowledge- Out of an understanding of the significance of preserving knowledge as a value in and of itself, without considering the immediate benefit which can rise out of it. This approach requires the investment of resources and subsidies, just like the state subsidizes educational institutions or heritage sights. This approach is implemented in a manner worth mentioning in Japan. The state recognizes the historical value of activities such as drama, music, handcraft techniques, which warrant protection and preservation by law. Artists and craftsmen with unique skill sets are recognized as a "living national treasure" and receive an annual stipend in order to continue dealing in their craft as well as train their successors and pass the heritage on. Additionally, the state initiates training workshops to ensure the passing on of inter-generational passing of knowledge.
2-Usage of traditional crafts in order to gain a profit and out of it stems preservation. In this case, crafts are done for trade or tourism purposes. This approach is implemented in many places around the world and in some cases even in Israel, with varying degrees of compromising authenticity. Even though we have not defined standards for authenticity, it is obvious that dealing with crafts for trade purposes subjects them from the start to market demands and strips them of the original social and cultural context as well as the traditional quality which is expressed in design, color, symbolism and so on. Under these conditions, it is very challenging to preserve the authenticity of a product, even though there is a reasonable possibility to preserve the traditional method of work. In other words- even if the final product loses the traditional qualities, the method with which it is produced may be similar to the method with which the traditional products were made. This claim is not true in every case and raises the question if "partial similarity in the production method" can suffice in order to be considered craft preservation. One of the issues with this approach is the fact that the level of skill required today to produce ornaments which are solely for sale to tourists is not high and usually, the craft will not be carried out at its optimal level. Similarly, if the goal is selling the product and making a profit, it is inevitable to compromise on the method of production. The temptation to shift over to more modern devices or semi-modern devices, which imitate the traditional production method, will be too large in order to continue and perform the traditional production. In rare cases, an effort is made to produce objects with uncompromisingly high standards and finishing touches, in order to sell it for exclusive customers. In most of these cases, the prices of the products are not enough to support the production costs and assistance is required- from donations, subsidies, other sources of income that are not sales-dependent. An example of this is found in the "Sidrah" foundation for Bedouin weaving in Lakiyah. This type of "preservation" is implemented only in crafts that produce a product worth selling, and these are only a small portion of the crafts. The problem of this approach is the total disregard for the fact that the traditional methods of production cannot compete on a commercial level with modern production methods, or often with cheap imports. Deliberate intervention and monetary support can be a solution. However, even then, this type of production is detached from the cultural connotation of the craft and the preservation is not completely credible or free of compromise with regards to the product design, which has to satisfy the taste of the modern customer, and not the original, traditional design.
Usage of crafts for trade and tourism is carried out in various ways
a. Women's unions- In traditional societies that are in the midst of a modernization process, we can find the use of traditional crafts for "empowerment", usually by selling women's handicrafts to tourists. In many cases, sales and tourism are combined. The organization hosting groups in order to demonstrate the craft thus exposing the tourists to the products available for purchase. Here too, for the same reasons as written above, there is always a compromise, as the main driving force is not the preservation of the craft, rather the ability of the women to make a profit.
b. "Living Museums" - At these types of museums, the visitor can see a restored settlement, historical sight or display where traditional crafts are put on display in for recreation and illustration purposes. Craftsmen and craftswomen reenact the traditional work processes for the tourists. The activity can also include crafts that have nothing to do with objects for sale. The main dilemma here is linked to financial feasibility as opposed to the preciseness of the traditional production methods. Around the world, there are recreated villages or local festivals where there are live demonstrations of the traditional crafts of the highest quality. In Israel, however, there is no sight that carries out such activity at a level that can be considered as genuine preservation of traditional methods of production. Sights where attempts such as these are made usually include a massive distortion of the historical reality, massive commercialization and a low level of accuracy. The potential cloaked in this idea is immense, as the demonstration of crafts in the context of a historical site can greatly enrich the visitor's experience and the understanding of the spirit of the place. This is on condition that history is credibly presented. Additionally, in order to preserve the knowledge, the activity of the place must include teaching and training of apprentices.
c. The workshops I hold with craftswomen can be placed in the tourism category. The idea behind these workshops assumes that through teaching the craft, the craftswomen can earn more than through the sale of the products and that if the process will show to be economically viable, there will be a reason to preserve the craft within the original community. During these workshops, a great effort is made to maintain authenticity as well as understand the craft within its cultural and social contexts.
The challenge of this way is that the funding source is based on the participants themselves, and their numbers are limited. Therefore, there is no social justification for the community to continue and preserve the craft. Carrying out this activity on a wider scale, such as including such workshops in official educational programs, might justify the preservation of the task in a natural way within the community. However, this too relies heavily on external funders and the awareness of the various educational bodies.
In all these cases, there is a challenge that stems from a wish to make a tradition that is not based on commercial or economic motives to something that can produce an income. As a result, preserving the craft might be pushed down to second priority. Never the less, this does not have to be the reality, as recognizing the importance of preserving a craft and the willingness to allocate resources to the subject can yield ideas, using any of the options presented above, together with an uncompromising preservation plan which will work in accordance to preset standards. The program will include training and meticulously passing on of knowledge. Under certain conditions, such an activity can also generate profit, but these days it seems that the condition for authentic preservation can only be done by creating a separation between the preservation activity, which requires resources, and the market forces, which insist on trade.
Training and teaching
The teaching of traditional crafts has never been didactic. It was carried out as an integral part of life and through the young people observing the elders at work extensively. Running a training program will have to take this point into consideration and include mentoring of each teacher in order to gain effective learning over a reasonable amount of time. Understandably, the amount of time the training of each skill requires varies, but practice time is an integral part of learning any craft. Therefore, enough time must be allocated to each apprentice to practice the craft until they have gained excellent command of the required skill.
The various traditional crafts hold the key of knowledge to a sustainable way of life as expressed in the past. This practical knowledge was never recorded in writing, rather it was passed down as a living bequest, tied to the place and local materials. As these production traditions die out, practical knowledge is under threat of extinction. Preserving it is important for our future, just as it is important to preserve strains of traditional farming seeds that are not currently being used but might contain valuable qualities for the future. In order to save this knowledge, a conscious effort must be made. This effort must rise above economic and political considerations of market needs and out of a recognition of the common denominator of the local cultures. Knowing and respecting the heritage of the various cultures can act as a tool that brings people together. Identifying sources of knowledge, ie craftsmen and craftswomen and establishing a relationship that will allow to pass that knowledge on to the next generation is necessary in order to prevent the disappearance of the crafts which are an integral part of the local cultural heritage. At this point, the action is more important than setting rules and it is essential to preserve every craft which can be preserved. Furthermore, once the preservation of crafts is taken seriously, there will be a need for standardization of concepts such as tradition, locality, cultural context and authenticity. I myself feel committed to the process of preserving traditional crafts in Israel. So far I have acted alone and without support. I will be pleased to cooperate or get ideas from any willing party to promote the practical study of the field.
Icomos. THE NARA DOCUMENT ON AUTHENTICITY (1994).
איקומוס. 1994. מסמך נארה בנושא האותנטיות. תרגום לעברית אדר' גיורא סולר
International Symposium-Workshop on Natural Dyes. 2006. Hyderabad – India