Outrage and the Plight of Cultural Heritage: an Outsider’s Perspective

Posted in: ASOR, Cultural Heritage and Property
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e corbettBy: Elena Corbett

While this blog post is addressed to ASOR’s archaeological community, I am not an archaeologist, nor do I specialize in the ancient.  And I find the “oriental” in ASOR cringe-worthy.  After getting a Master’s in Islamic Archaeology, I went to the dark side–modern Middle East history.  It’s a better place for people who hate pottery and love modern languages, for those who are more interested in living people, or at least people who were more recently living.  And it’s a better place for those of us who recognize and readily admit that we are political creatures, engaged—as are all producers of knowledge, archaeologists included—in what are ultimately political acts.  It was there among the moderns that this political self found a much more productive avenue of scholarly inquiry for a life-long obsession with archaeology.  Archaeology is, after all, politics.  And the map of the modern Middle East has its inception in exactly that, beginning with the “holy land” imaginary of the Victorian milieu mapped into reality by the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) in its Survey of Western Palestine (1871-1877)[1]. This map was destined after the Great War to replace the extant, indigenous holy land of the diverse late Ottoman Empire so embedded in unquestioned Abrahamic tradition and practice[2]. (more…)

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10 Comments for : Outrage and the Plight of Cultural Heritage: an Outsider’s Perspective
  1. For me it comes to this: those of you who are archaeologists, your predecessors were the first “looters.”

    -True, but those looters at least had an interest in interpreting their finds and viewing them as part of a broader historical framework, sometimes, recording and preserving those finds and, even rarer, doing so in their immediate context. The looters of today have no such concerns besides out-of-context preservation and, more often than not, just making a quick buck. At least Bliss and Petrie tried to taxonomize, however poorly, the finds they uncovered and attempted to learn from them.

    Considering the ongoing conflict in Palestine, the Cold War, the age of neoliberalism, and the revolutions of the past two years (and, frankly and unfortunately, the reaction too many of you have had to them) does anyone really think we can or should take the “colonial” out of “post-colonial?"

    -Why is there no mention of "post-Umayyad studies" in the scholarly literature? Why the sparse mention of "post-Roman studies"? After all, the vast majority of colonialist powers (Spain, Belgium, Germany, the UK, France, etc.) were significantly affected by the Roman empire, as was Palestine. Why does the author here focus chiefly on European colonialism, an institution which ended over half a century ago in the Middle East while lasting a length of time under a third of that of the Ottoman domination and leaving little, comparatively with Umayyad or Ottoman domination, in its wake? Colonialism is as dead as and as alive as the Empire of Rome or the Caliphates that once ruled Palestine.

    • Musa Ayesh
    • October 22, 2012

    I have been conducting a research on Interpretation of archaeological heritage in Jordan, identity, approaches, meaning making process, the socio-cultural context, and I have to agree with almost everything in this article. And it is true that for 100 years people were told that this arcaheological heritage is not theirs. Ironicly, USAID and their agents are currently in charge of interpreting Jordan's. archaeological sites to visitors, targeting mainly western visitors. I enjoyed reading this blog, and i think I will read it again :)

    • Jonathan Genkin
    • October 23, 2012

    As steeped as this author is in post-colonial rhetoric it seems only part of the issues pursuant to a holistic view has been expressed. Archeology is now surely a battleground for ideology by all 'sides' and the battle ground in all wars does suffer and rarely survives. 'Looting' or often enough desecration of cultural edifices or cultural witnesses is endemic as witness the Talibans destruction of the giant Buddhas or the Palestinians attempt to eradicate historical evidence in an attempt to deny israelite history as it often is an obstruction to polemic whether convenient or not. History is not convenient or simple to classify even within remote ideological epitaphs such as 'historic materialism' (remember that?). An ideological view of archeology as romantic must not throw the baby out with the bath water. We will be doomed to repeat a history we do not study as witness our current days.

    • Liam Hart
    • October 23, 2012

    "Why does the author here focus chiefly on European colonialism, an institution which ended over half a century ago in the Middle East.."

    I believe I can answer that — because the people of the region are still living in the unnatural pseudo-states that colonial powers oh-so-benevolently set up for them. Since you seem fond of ancient analogies, perhaps the Hellenic kingdoms of Alexander's successors would be a good match. Would you suggest that the kingdom of Pontus or Egypt of the Ptolemies could be effectively studied without understanding the origins and practices of their Hellenic monarchs, and their impact upon the people the region?

    Seems fairly obvious to me, but then I am just a musician. :-)

  2. Would you suggest that the kingdom of Pontus or Egypt of the Ptolemies could be effectively studied without understanding the origins and practices of their Hellenic monarchs, and their impact upon the people the region?

    Of course not. As I have said,

    Colonialism is as dead as and as alive as the Empire of Rome or the Caliphates that once ruled Palestine.

    Should anyone claim that finding a solution to the destruction of Levantine heritage begins with acknowledging "more than 200 years of holistic Roman damage" or "that the greatest threat to cultural heritage began and continues to reside much closer to Mecca"? I think not.

    • Liam Hart
    • October 23, 2012

    Notwithstanding the damage to local culture certainly caused by the Roman occupation, one would have to point out that Rome and its successor states are long gone. The states that colonized the Middle East are for the most part still around. But far more importantly Arabs and Berbers and Kurds today live in states that were set up without their consent by those colonizing powers, who created each of them to be the petty oriental despotism that they imagined was the natural form of government for anyone unfortunate enough to be born in that part of the world.

  3. The states that colonized the Middle East are for the most part still around.

    And what makes the fact they are still around relevant to the matter of the preservation of heritage in the Middle East?

    But far more importantly Arabs and Berbers and Kurds today live in states that were set up without their consent by those colonizing powers, who created each of them to be the petty oriental despotism that they imagined was the natural form of government for anyone unfortunate enough to be born in that part of the world.

    -True. The Middle East has adopted many institutions from its past. I still don't see how the two facts you mention connect with the matter of the preservation of heritage in the Middle East.

    • Liam Hart
    • October 23, 2012

    They have to do with perception of ownership of antiquities. I thought that was clear, sorry — sometimes I type a bit faster than I think. 😉

    • Nicole Hansen
    • November 6, 2012

    With regards to the comments about Petrie the first commenter above made, it could also be said that Petrie monetized the act of digging because he paid his workers by the finds they made, not the day of work. A lot of people in the Middle East were introduced to the idea that an ancient pot had monetary value by Petrie.

  4. Very interesting discussion and comments, but I do wonder how many people who empower decision makers in a democracy "understand", in any remote sense of the word, the issues that come into play when an archaeologist speaks of cultural heritage protection. I see very little difference between today's archaeological sequestering of the past through self interest and the much maligned colonial attitudes of past and present. At the end of the day it's all about power and control — not exactly a new phenomenon.

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