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Towards a Post-Westphalian Archaeology

July 4, 2017

The modern history of archaeological research can be roughly divided into three periods. During the first period, running from Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt to the end of World War 2, archaeology was often part of  imperial enterprises. Archaeology was primarily (but not exclusively) conducted by Europeans and Americans who traveled to exotic lands in search of the remains of past civilizations. Disparities in wealth and power meant that a steady stream of artifacts flowed from poor regions to wealthy imperial capitals in London, Paris, Berlin and Istanbul. National museums conferred prestige by showcasing the breadth of their respective empires’ territory and influence.

Conceptually archaeology in the Near East was a search for ‘firsts’ – of agriculture, cities, the wheel, writing, laws, literature – that held the keys to understanding the genesis of civilization. Civilization then passed to the Greco-Roman world, and from there to the West. Westerners went east in search of their own origins, carrying with them a teleology which they subconsciously imposed on the shape of the field.[1]

The second period began in southern Europe in the nineteenth century, but spread in earnest only after World War 2 and ran until at least the early 2000s. In many places it continues to this day. As decolonization created new nation-states organized into a new international system by the United Nations, those states sought to take control of their own archaeology. Thanks to previous associations of archaeology with colonial control, establishing control of archaeological sites located within their territory became an important part of asserting their independence.[2]

The new period was a product of the new international system, in which the entire world and its population was divided into self-governing states which controlled defined geographic boundaries. Since the state’s realm of control is circumscribed by defined geographic boundaries, states could lay claim to all archaeological remains located within their borders, regardless of whether they had any direct or ongoing cultural link with the state’s present inhabitants. If it was found within the territory of the state, it was part of the heritage of that geographic locale, and was therefore part of the state.

States declared all artifacts found within their borders to be part of their national heritage. Artifacts found within their territory were declared state property and their export was banned. Archaeology was regulated by government ministries. Extensive diplomatic efforts sought the return of artifacts which had been removed from within the country’s modern borders during the previous period. National museums showcased all artifacts found within the state’s territory. Efforts were made to train native-born archaeologists to take over research in their home countries.

This had numerous positive results: it slowed the steady drain of artifacts from the developing to the developed world, promoted interest in the archaeology worldwide, and began to free the discipline from its colonialist past. Ideologically the recovery of the ancient past served as a form of resistance to cultural domination by the West, showing that these states had a civilized past which either pre-dated Western civilization or developed independently of it.

Yet the weakness of the second period was bound up in the weakness of the international system which created it. In the modern institution of the state belonging is marked by citizenship, which overrides social ties of family, language, ethnicity and religion. Both citizenship and geographic boundaries are on some level arbitrary: citizenship is granted by the state either at birth or by legal process, and borders are lines drawn on a map. All states are to some degree heterogeneous, containing many types of people lumped together into a common identity by the accident of borders.

Implied consent – the unavoidable difficulty that most people who are born into a state never participated in framing their constitution and therefore have never had a real say in forming the type of government they live under, and are therefore presumed to have consented to being governed by sole virtue of being born in a certain time and place – is an ever-present weakness in the system.

I will argue that we are now seeing the emergence of a third period of archaeology, which is being created by the erosion of the nation-state in the twenty-first century.

The state has weaknesses: Implied consent, heterogeneity and artificial borders all pose problems for maintaining the system. Some states have attempted to manage this through greater integration with other states. In some cases this has exacerbated the problem, driving people who no longer feel that they share a common life to fall back onto more primary loyalties even as global communications makes it easier than ever before for them to connect with like-minded people. As a result, ethnic nationalism is no longer necessarily linked to geographic boundaries but is defined solely by membership in the tribe.

Tribes have certain advantages over the state. Tribes select their own members and do not need to control a defined territory in order to exist, which means they do not face the problem of heterogeneous populations forced to share the same geographic space. Tribes are constantly changing as their members change, removing the problem of implied consent. They are prone to splitting, which conversely makes them adaptable.

As a result, twenty-first century national archaeology now seeks to supersede the apparatus of the state and use archaeology to promote the interests of the tribe.

Resurgent Russian Nationalism

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin argued that Crimea was vital to Russian identity because “It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus.” This was important because “Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state. It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forevermore saw themselves as a united nation.”

Of course, the archaeological site of Chersonesus lay outside the boundaries of the Russian state. But this did not matter, because in Putin’s view the essential qualities of Russian-ness are not citizenship in the Russian Federation but ties of culture, language and religion. In a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, Putin lamented that after the break-up of the USSR “25 million of Russian people suddenly turned out to be outside the borders of the Russian Federation,” and in other statements has promised to use Russian power to protect the interests of ethnic Russians who are citizens of other states.

Putin’s critic and supporter from the right, Aleksandr Dugin, has articulated a post-Westphalian nationalist ideology in even starker terms:

I want to stress that, since the beginning of the fifteenth century, the state and the empire were seen as opposite extremes in Europe. Bodin, Machiavelli and Hobbes developed their theories of the ‘state’ in opposition to the ontology of the empire; the concept of the state is a product of the repudiation of the concept of an empire. The state is an artificial pragmatic construction, desacralised and devoid of telos, purpose and substance. On the contrary, the empire is something alive, sacred, and replete with purpose and essence: something that has a higher destiny. In an empire, the administrative apparatus is not separate from the religious mission, or from the people’s spirit. The empire is a universal embodiment of this mission, illuminating the elastic energy of people and culture.[3]

States are bound by geographic boundaries, empires expand. States treat all their citizens equally before the law, empires are free to privilege certain groups of people over others. But states are ultimately practical constructs, while empires are deeply ideological, and therefore can provide meaning to certain types of people in ways that states cannot. By extension, an empire can claim all archaeological sites which connect to its core identity regardless of geographic location.

Assyrian Nationalism

Not all forms of the new nationalism seek to rule over others. The Assyrian minority in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran along with the Assyrian diaspora abroad strongly identify with the cultures of pre-Islamic Mesopotamia (or Beth Nahrain as it is known in modern Aramaic), especially the Assyrian Empire.

As Assyrian activist Mardean Isaac has put it:

If Christianity is all that is at stake, we can worship freely in the west. An Iraqi Christian can easily become a Kurdish Christian or a French Christian. Our living history and all that it comprises it is irreplaceable: our link to the past and the future of our people is our land and our language.

Of course, claiming that Nineveh and Nimrud are the special heritage of one ethnic minority directly undercuts the idea that Iraq’s ancient past is the heritage of all Iraqis. And yet at least half of Iraq’s Assyrian population has been forced to flee the country since 2003. At panel held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past September on protecting the cultural heritage of religious minorities in the Middle East, an Assyrian audience member directly questioned whether persons who aided and abetted genocide against an ethnic minority should be able to claim rights to that minority’s cultural heritage once that minority had been removed, simply because that heritage is located within the territory of a state of which they are a citizen.

While Assyrian nationalists have often called for the establishment of an Assyrian state, more realistic current goals seek the establishment of an autonomous region within Iraq in the region of Nineveh Plains similar to the status enjoyed by Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdish Nationalism

Oh, enemy! The Kurdish people live on,
They have not been crushed by the weapons of any time
Let no one say Kurds are dead, they are living
They live and never shall we lower our flag

We are the descendants of the Medes and Cyaxares
Kurdistan is our religion, our credo,
Let no one say Kurds are dead, they are living
They live and never shall we lower our flag

Thus read the first and fourth verses of Ey Reqîb, the Kurdish national anthem. Like the Assyrians, the Kurds were divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Kurdish identity therefore was never established in a state and was instead maintained by emphasizing its continued existence despite being divided up into other states. Kurdish identity, it is alleged, stretches back to Cyaxares, the founder of the Median Empire and conqueror of Nineveh, thereby seeking to legitimize Kurdish national claims in the present by linking them to the distant past.

Kurdish nationalists have never established a state and so have yet to successfully resolve the contradiction between nationalism and statehood. In semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, non-Kurdish minorities frequently complain of discrimination and attempts to assimilate their identities. Similar concerns have been raised concerning the Kurdish regions of Syria.

What is the response?

The various nationalisms profiled here are vastly different in their aims, resources, coherence, number of adherents, and the degree of moral revulsion they inspire. What they have in common is an emphasis on a particular ancient culture being the special inheritance of an in-group based on primary loyalties rather than citizenship in a nation-state.

One could give many more examples: ancient Israel and revisionist Zionism, Palestinian nationalism (really a stunted version of the second phase), or the way jihadist groups appropriate early Islamic history in the service of claims to re-establish the caliphate. One could further explore the roles played by the ancient past in Hindu nationalism in India or medieval and classical history in the European far right. We can likely expect many more such movements to arise.

Just as the second phase in archaeology was a byproduct of the United Nations-led international system, the third phase is a byproduct of the new nationalisms of the twenty-first century which are bursting through the weak points in the post-1945 international system.

Pre-modern societies provide a powerful model for these new nationalisms, not only because age lends legitimacy but because these societies pre-date the Westphalian state system and therefore lack many of its perceived weaknesses. Furthermore ancient historians have often failed in the past to critically interrogate concepts of ethnicity and identity in the ancient world, especially in the more popular publications, leading to the assumption that these issues were simpler in the past and making it easier to appropriate them for the present.

Possible Responses

Two possible responses to this problem readily present themselves:

The first is internationalism. This is the route taken by the Society for Classical Studies last November, apparently inspired by Donna Zuckerberg’s article “How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor,” which reads in part:

Greek and Roman culture was shared and shaped for their own purposes by people living from India to Britain and from Germany to Ethiopia. Its medieval and modern influence is wider still. Classical Studies today belongs to all of humanity.

For this reason, the Society strongly supports efforts to include all groups among those who study and teach the ancient world, and to encourage understanding of antiquity by all. It vigorously and unequivocally opposes any attempt to distort the diverse realities of the Greek and Roman world by enlisting the Classics in the service of ideologies of exclusion, whether based on race, color, national origin, gender, or any other criterion.

The corollary of this statement is that the second period of archaeology is effectively dead. If the classics belong to all of humanity then they are not the special heritage of any one nation. And if the classics are not the special heritage of certain nations, this calls into question whether national governments have exclusive rights to the cultural heritage contained within their borders. The second period may persist for a while as a legal regime, but its ideology is cut off at the knees.

But internationalism runs the risk of returning to the first period, only with ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘common heritage’ becoming code words for imposing western values and ideas of heritage management on the rest of the world.

The second is localism. Heritage is owned on the sub-national level. Instead of emphasizing the universal value of ancient heritage to the world, localists emphasize the relationships between ancient sites and the communities living in their immediate geographic area. They push for local control over the management of heritage and for hearing their voices in the study of the site.

Aside from the obvious ethical complications (can the locals decide to destroy their heritage? How should they treat the heritage of previous population groups they feel no connection to?) the risk of the local approach is that it can enable the same sorts of particularist nationalism that threaten to destroy the second period system.

Either way, the second period is dead. If the sovereignty enjoyed by the state is undermined, so does its monopoly over the archaeological heritage found within its borders. It is either ceded to international bodies, usurped by ethno-nationalist movements or turned over to local control.

The future of heritage management is going to be complex and likely inconsistent. There have never been simple answers, but the questions are about to get much more complicated.

However, the displacement of the nation-state as the sole actor in heritage preservation provides an opportunity: Not to shift the entire responsibility for heritage protection to another actor, but to introduce balance to the equation. Global, national or local interests will no longer be able to automatically override the other two. Future heritage conservation efforts will likely have to balance the interests of all three.

See Also:

The Future of War in the Middle East and the Future of Archaeology
Archaeology in the Age of Special War
Book Review: “Brave New War” by John Robb


[1] See Zainab Bahrani, “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past,” 159-174 in Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East (London: Routledge, 1998).

[2] See for example Magnus T. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation-Building in Modern Iraq (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 95, 179-185.

[3] Aleksandr Dugin, Putin vs. Putin: Vladimir Putin Viewed from the Right (London: Arktos Media, 2014), 63.

Article © Christopher Jones 2017.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    July 4, 2017 7:36 AM

    “The corollary of this statement is that the second period of archaeology is effectively dead. If the classics belong to all of humanity then they are not the special heritage of any one nation.”

    I am baffled by your logical jump here. Belonging does not negate heritage. An American immigrant from China does not surrender his Chinese heritage just because he now belongs to America. Democracy, for instance, belongs to all of humanity but that does not mean it is not the special heritage of any one nation (i.e. Greece). Human rights belong to all of humanity but that does not mean they are not the special heritage of any one civilization (i.e Western). One claim does not preclude the other.


  1. Towards a Post-Westphalian Archaeology by Christopher Jones — Gates of Nineveh: An Experiment in Blogging Assyriology @cwjones89 | Talmidimblogging

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