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Letter from England: Assault on Tradition Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by David Keys

A UNESCO nomination compels a second look at the surprising history of gritty, industrial Liverpool

[image] An original eighteenth-century dry dock used to repair slave ships can still be seen in Liverpool. (© English Heritage) [LARGER IMAGE]

It seems a worker's revolution is afoot within the world heritage industry! Leading the charge is the gritty northern English port city of Liverpool, which is applying for UNESCO World Heritage status so it can celebrate its past on equal terms with the Sphinx, the Taj Mahal, and the Parthenon.

Chutzpah, you say. Well, maybe. But the British government is backing the bid and the likelihood is that UNESCO's World Heritage committee will nod it through when it reviews the proposal next year.

Why has Britain decided to pick Liverpool to lead the assault on tradition? To the world at large, the city is famous only as the relatively modern international port that was home to the Beatles. But to economic and social historians and to industrial archaeologists, it is much, much more.

The "otherness" of Liverpool, which seems to have freed it from the normal restaining influences of traditional England, was a cause and a consequence of being both the port city at the Hub of Empire and Europe's link with America. It is that quality, and the monuments it has produced, that makes it the ideal candidate to help change, or at least broaden, the world's perception of what heritage is all about. For if Liverpool gets to sit alongside the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon as a World Heritage site, then it will most certainly open up heritage status for the great metropolises of New York, Bombay, Shanghai, and others in the future.

In Liverpool itself, inscription on the World Heritage List is likely to coincide with and encourage a more vigorous use of archaeology to further reveal the port's past. A major urban redevelopment program will involve archaeological recording and conservation work as old warehouses and buildings are adapted for new, more economically productive uses. The city's lone archaeologist, Sarah-Jane Farr, hopes that archaeological excavations in a number of locations within the city should at long last start to reveal details of the long-vanished medieval town, the postmedieval port that surrounded the original tidal inlet, and the types of industry that flourished there.

David Keys is the archaeology correspondent for the Independent and author of Catastrophe (Random House, 2000).

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America