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The Situation: A Post for the Grand Challenges for Archaeology Blogging Carnival

January 31, 2016

This post is written especially for Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s January blogging carnival at Doug’s Archaeology Blog, seeking responses to the question “What are the grand challenges facing your archaeology?” You can read the rest of the responses here. For regular readers I hope this post will serve as a useful summary of the various topics discussed on this blog in the past year. For new readers I hope it will serve as a good starting point for reading about the issues discussed on this blog.

Wherever scholars of the ancient Near East gather these days the topic of conversation invariably turns to The Situation. The Situation hangs like a spectre casting a pall over our entire field. The Situation both steels our resolve while giving our work an urgent sense of purpose, and makes us despair as to whether any of it will survive.

The Situation has been slow-burning for a long while. The Iran-Iraq War limited archaeological missions from 1980-1988. The last American archaeological teams left Iraq in 1990. They have only returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in the past few years. War was followed by sanctions and poverty in the 1990s and regime change in the 2000s which led to disastrous looting of museums and archaeological sites. A brief glimmer of hope asserted itself after 2011, only to be dashed as ISIS swept to power in Iraq and Syria and began the destruction of cultural heritage on a scale not seen in the region in centuries.

Looting. The antiquities trade. Root causes of poverty and lack of security. Intentional destruction of heritage for propagandistic purposes. Failed and hollow states. War seemingly without end.

The Situation is a crisis decades in the making. It will not be solved overnight, or next year, or even in ten years. But we in the field of the archaeology of the Near East must grapple with it, for the long term viability of our field is at stake. If we are to avoid becoming a dead field with a closed corpus of data, we must wrestle with the following issues:

1) Failed and Hollow States

A failed state is a state whose government no longer controls most of its territory. Syria, Libya and Yemen are failed states. Iraq has been on the brink of becoming one. A hollow state is a state where the government maintains all the trappings of a state – government offices, a standing army and police force, elections – even as the government loses day to day control over what happens in large swaths of its territory. Egypt has moved towards this from time to time since 2011, and Afghanistan is already there.

Failed or hollow states no longer effectively enforce laws against looting. Failed or hollow states produce desperate people who do what they have to do in order to survive. Failed or hollow states no longer provide secure environments for archaeological research. Archaeologists have even become targets themselves.

Failing states allow for the rise of superempowered groups bonded by a shared cause and rooted in primary loyalties to culture and family which run deeper than the state. As people lose trust in the state and its institutions these groups multiply and adapt as they seek to undermine the state. New tactics, such as funding an insurgency from antiquities sales, or destroying archaeological sites as a strategy of warfare, are sure to be adopted by more groups than ISIS.

2) We are Unprepared to Respond

We are unprepared to respond to any of this, because our entire apparatus of cultural heritage research and preservation depends on the power of the state. As a result, our response has been to double down on state power. We want heavily armed guards at every site and museum, looters jailed, imports banned, computer databases created, dealers investigated and some even daydream about sending UN peacekeepers to secure archaeological sites. Our codes of ethics are rooted in repatriation, international agreements and countries of origin.

These strategies still work where states maintain their power. But when the state is gone the result is a disaster, and there is little that state power can do to restore the situation. As state power declines in many parts of the world, we will need to conceptualize new methods of heritage preservation for the 21st century.

3) Archaeology Will Become a Tool of Many Nationalisms

Over much of the Middle East, one nationalism has been replaced by many nationalisms. The ideological basis of the old post-colonial Arab states is gone. Over the past five years the idea that the Arabic-speaking world was one unified cultural entity stretching from Morocco to the Indian Ocean has been shattered into pieces as one country after another has torn itself apart.

As it did so, the peoples of the Middle Ease fell back on identities which pre-date their modern states. Arab nationalism in Syrian and Iraqi strains has been replaced by nationalism in Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Armenian, Druze, Turkmen, Syriac, Kurdish and Assyrian flavors. Each identity involves reaching back to the past for something to hold on to in times of turmoil. Each nationalism involves utilizing history.

Nearly a year and a half ago I wrote on this blog that “Archaeology will have to come to terms with the fact that Arab nationalism is dead.”

The support offered for archaeology by twentieth-century Arab nationalist governments in many places is no more as new funding priorities are set. In others archaeology will continue albeit in the service of new nationalisms, creating new challenges in professional ethics and increasing the likelihood that archaeologists’ work will be used as a weapon for someone’s cause.

What’s Next?

The challenges set forth here seem deeply distressing and often feel insurmountable. Responding and adapting to them is a challenge with which the new generation of students of the ancient Near East must grapple over the coming decades. Some answers may be found in building resilient platforms for heritage protection. Other answers may be found in critically examining our own presuppositions about the nature of cultural heritage and its preservation. New paradigms for ethics must seriously engage with people’s right to their own heritage and avoid the easy pitfall of declaring an overriding neo-colonial western interest in preserving ancient artifacts.

All is not lost, and technology and new methods of organization may enable heritage preservation in ways not possible before. But in order to find the answers we must first ask the right questions.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

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