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New Normals Throughout History: Urban Society Adaptations to Crisis

In the 7th SPAFA SESH titled “New Normals Throughout History: Urban Society Adaptations to Crisis” moderated by Hatthaya Siriphatthanakun, SEAMEO SPAFA’s Specialist in Cultural Heritage Conservation, three speakers were invited to share their researches and experience in human adaptation in the past to several kinds of disasters caused by biological, human-induced and natural hazards. The talk, which was broadcast live on SPAFA’s Facebook and on Zoom, covered case studies showing a broader scope of impact to the material scale of adaptation.

Siripoj Laomanacharoen, an archaeologist by training and an author of the book “Black Death, from China to Siam or today Thailand”, shared his research on the pandemic occurring in central Thailand in the 14th century before the establishment of Ayutthaya, a capital city of Siam Kingdom from 1350 to 1767. The cholera outbreak in Bangkok during the early 20th century, known as “Ha” in Thai word, brought about a misunderstanding with the outbreak which happened before the establishment of Ayutthaya, also called “Ha”. He claimed that the pandemic affecting the world at that time, starting from China to Europe especially along the Maritime Silk Road, was plague or Black Death. As such “Ha ” in the 14th century that exploded in port cities located in the central plain of Thailand should mean plague, not cholera as believed. Furthermore, due to the plague, cultural changes particularly in language were seen in the royal court of Ayutthaya. Khmer language was used as the royal oral and literary language. He also noted that at the same time Thai language emerged for commoners, becoming the language used until present times. Ultimately the speaker concluded that “Thainess” was the new normal as a result of the plague in the 14th century.

Sasathorn Charoenphan, a Thai archaeologist who now works for Museum of London Archaeology, UK, provided an interesting perspective on the outbreak of plague in London around the 17th century on how it impacted the city and what was changed accordingly. During the time, the protective measures such as physical distancing, areas locked down as well as health certificates to enter the city of London were already used. She pointed out that some measures did not work due to the lack of scientific research on the disease. Because of the high number of deaths from the plague, many parts of the city were deserted and land prices dramatically dropped. Then the Great Fire occurred, the aftermath of which leading to the reconstruction of the city and how it is shaped today. In addition the speaker also shared that from the archaeological excavations in the area of London that she has done, plague pits where the bodies of the deaths from plague were buried were discovered. As known among the archaeologists who work in the area, some pits were mapped, still others were not. So normally they have tried to avoid doing any digging that might affect the plague pits. In her case, the skeletons of the deaths were brought back to be conserved and documented at the museum.

Tina Paterno, an experienced architectural conservator who is now the President of ICOMOS Philippines as well as the Technical Director of San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc., currently on sabbatical, provided an insight narrative on how the San Sebastian Basilica situated in Manila was built and made of metal, rather than being a traditional masonry building like other churches constructed during the same period. After five attempts to construct the church which always collapsed by earthquake, the architect decided to take advantage of new building technology: a prefabricated steel-structure which was a result of the industrial revolution in Europe. Each piece of the building was made in Belgium and then shipped to Manila to be assembled. The steels were painted to resemble the surface of wood and stone. Tina also pointed out the challenges of the conservation and sustainability of the Basilica at present. Besides the physical conservation intervention, the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation initiated the public participation activities and has engaged the young generation to the conservation project.

The lessons learnt from this SPAFA SESH, in connection to COVID-19 outbreak, is that disasters are borderless. If the COVID-19 virus continues to spread wherever in the world, we are all still at risk just as we have seen from the outbreaks from China, Ayutthaya and Europe in the 14th century. In addition the protective measures for the outbreak we are using at present were also implemented in the 17th century as seen from the London example. Last but not least the building of San Sebastian Basilica shows us the human creativity and innovation to resist the unavoidable and unpredictable natural disaster which has increased in occurrence.

If you watched the SPAFA SESH “New Normals Throughout History: Urban Society Adaptations to Crisis”, please complete the questionnaire (approximately 5 minutes) to help us improve future SPAFA SESHes: http://bit.ly/Evaluation-Form-SPAFA-SESH7-New-Normals-History.

Date: 16 October 2020

Time: 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. (Bangkok time), 11:00  a.m. – 1:00 p.m. (Manila time), 4:00-6:00 a.m. (London time)

Online Platform: Facebook Live https://www.facebook.com/seameo.spafa/ and on *Zoom *(Please register at: http://bit.ly/SPAFASESH_NewNormalThroughoutHistory_RegForm)

At present we are aware that our world is changing due to COVID-19 outbreak. While the pandemic still continues and no one knows how this biological disaster will end. Various protective measures such as physical distancing, rearranging the lay-out plan and facilities of public spaces, changing social practicing and etc. have been implemented so as to mitigate the spreading as well as catastrophic impacts from the disease. It has been debatable whether these changes will be temporary or will become the new social orders or normal that brings new ways of life to the mankind.

Looking back on our history, many examples of human adaptation to several kinds of disasters can be obviously seen around the world. On one hand the innovation or adaptation of building materials and technologies was developed to mitigate the impacts from earthquake as we can see from San Sebastian Church in Manila in the Philippines while urban structure in many historic towns such as London was redesigned for better safety and sanitary reasons after the great fires particularly in 1666. On the other hand floating structure and house on stilts showing human’s resiliency along riverine areas were seen around Southeast Asia in the past. However, ultimately relocation of the ancient capitals or resettlement of several towns including Ayutthaya, a capital of Siam Kingdom which was developed to be Thailand at present, is an extreme case study to demonstrate the sense of survival of people from the unavoidable outbreaks such as plague and smallpox.

In SPAFA SESH on “New Normals throughout History: Urban Society Adaptations to Crisis”, three speakers will share case studies on human adaptation learnt through the history of three cities: London, Manila and Ayutthaya.

Guest Speakers:

  1. Sasathorn Charoenphan, Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology
  2. Tina Paterno President, ICOMOS Philippines, Former Technical Director, San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.
  3. Siripoj Laomanacharoen, Historian, Columnist and Author


Ms Hatthaya Siripatthanakun, SEAMEO SPAFA Specialist in Cultural Heritage Conservation

[Discussion will be conducted in English]

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