Ten years ago, in April of 2003, a coalition led by the United States invaded Iraq. This quickly toppled the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein but also resulted in the loss of life, local unrest, displacement, and the ransacking of cultural institutions, archives, libraries, and the national museum in Baghdad. During that eventful month we both worked for the U.S. Department of State in the Cultural Heritage Center– Christina as a cultural property analyst and Morag as a contractor, administering the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.
In our daily work lives at State we knew that we were carrying out foreign policy initiatives under the guise of archaeology, but until April of 2003 and the unfolding events in Iraq we did not realize that all of the programming and initiatives we carried out at State, and much of our previous lives as archaeologists, was in the service of the state, under a paradigm of national bridge building and fence mending. While we do not wish to diminish the myriad devastating effects of war on humanity, as archaeologists we are also concerned with the consequences of war on cultural heritage. Continue reading →
The transformative political events in the Middle East over the past two years have had, among many other unexpected outcomes, profound effects on the direction of research in Near Eastern archaeology.War and civil unrest act as both a carrot and a stick, forcing the cessation of fieldwork in some areas, while promoting new investigations in places that might otherwise have gone unexplored. The geopolitics of the post-Arab Spring world are changing where we are able work, and by consequence they will shape the research questions we investigate, as well as the regions where future generations of scholars will likely specialize. But the present moment of realignment is far from unique—our discipline has been shaped from the beginning by the tumultuous political history of the Middle East.
In the spring of 1920, James Henry Breasted and a group of scholars from the University of Chicago’s newly founded Oriental Institute embarked on a survey of major archaeological sites in Mesopotamia and Syria. It was Breasted’s hope that the return of political stability under British rule after the end of World War I would facilitate renewed investigations in Mesopotamia. Having traveled by steamer from Egypt, via Bombay, to Basra in southern Iraq, the team began making their way up the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, visiting many of the most prominent sites in the region, including Uruk, Babylon, and Nineveh.
Oriental Institute expedition team members pose with British officers at the west gate of Dura Europos, May 1920. (Image reproduced courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum’s Photographic Archives http://oi.uchicago.edu/museum/collections/pa/).
Egypt’s January 25th revolution was originally seen as part of the larger “Arab Spring” across the Middle East where old political regimes were overthrown by popular protests and replaced by representative democracies. But on January 28th 2011, as chaos reigned in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, reports began circulating around the globe claiming that antiquities on display in the Egyptian Museum had been stolen. Zahi Hawass, the famous face of Egyptian archaeology, Mubarak regime insider, and then head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), was immediately embroiled in the situation. Many outside of Egypt believed that the political volatility and economic crisis engulfing the capital and the rest of the country had claimed some of the most precious artifacts of Egypt’s over 5,000 year history which would be lost forever. Egyptians of all social classes converged on the museum to protect it, sparking hopes that a new era in the relationship between Egyptians and their past had begun. Continue reading →
“There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there.”
What should American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) members do if new Dead Sea Scrolls are found? What if our country’s military actions increase uncontrolled looting of ancient sites? Or if war creates a situation where people and ancient things exist under occupation? How should we deal with the remains of human beings we encounter in burials? How should ASOR members and others support international laws dealing with antiquities?
These are the questions that are driving the development of a new, comprehensive ethics policy for ASOR. This moment has arrived as a result of a decades-long process. ASOR is an organization with an impressive history and a promising future, founded in response to the shared interests, vision, and ideals of professional archaeologists, historians, epigraphers, and others. Continue reading →
Archaeological sites in the Middle East have been ransacked, pillaged, and plundered for many decades. The motivations of the actual pillaging are normally economic: the pursuit of marketable artifacts. That is, the pillagers wish to find objects that can be sold to collectors. Of course, the motivations of the collectors who purchase these pillaged antiquities range from the desire to possess a piece of ancient history to having putative proof for a cherished belief. Among the artifacts most prized by collectors are ancient inscriptions.
Think briefly about scientific archaeological excavations. Complete pots and potsherds are carefully collected, catalogued, documented, and analyzed, while broken pots are often restored. Organic materials are meticulously bagged and tagged and sent to be carbon dated. Animal bones and seeds are studied to learn about animal husbandry, agriculture, and ancient diets. Grinding stones, needles, and pins are photographed and studied carefully to shed light on aspects of daily life. Metal objects are sent to laboratories for scientific analyses. Stone tools such as arrowheads are sent to specialists for analysis. And inscriptions are sent to epigraphers to be read and analyzed. The result is that knowledge is gained about ancient languages and dialects, and about ancient social structures, and religious practices and ideas. The final result is that scientific excavations yield an enormous amount of information about the ebb and flow of ancient lives. Continue reading →
Many viewers of the History Channel’s Bible mini-series saw and see a resemblance between the character of Satan and President Barack Obama. Comparison photos such as the one above are circulating on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. The History Channel denies any resemblance and any attempt to pattern the character after the President.
Whether one sees a resemblance or not, the History Channel has produced a biblical epic with virtually no actors from contemporary corollaries of biblical lands, so the North African (Moroccan) actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouzaani is highly visible as Satan in a production where the Israelites are portrayed by white actors. I have previously addressed the use of race in the series here and here and here. The History Channel is responsible for what it broadcasts just as the producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, and their casting agents are responsible for the product they produce. Continue reading →
Sensational discoveries of mosaics periodically make the headlines of newspapers in Turkey. After being discovered, unearthed, cleaned, and removed, these ancient floors slowly make their way to museums or private collections. For this month’s ASOR Blog on the Archaeology of Anatolia, I wish to examine the curious afterlife of mosaics in, out of, and more recently, back to Turkey. I want to analyze their transformation from buried and forgotten things in the ground, to sanitized artifacts, aesthetic masterpieces, and contested objects of desire.
Unearthed in the late 1990s at Zeugma in Southeastern Turkey during rescue excavations before the construction of the Birecik Dam, the 2nd century AD mosaic below is now displayed in the newly built Mosaic Museum of Gaziantep. It shows Achilles on the island of Skyros leaving for the Trojan War. Thetis, Achilles’ mother, knowing that her son would die by joining the Greek army, dresses him as a girl and sends him to live with a king and his beautiful daughters on the island of Skyros, far away from the war.
Odysseus (R) takes Achilles (C) away from Deidameia (L)
We have had a successful October here, with a great range of posts on cultural heritage projects, the idea of heritage itself, and current problems in the field. If you haven’t read them all already make sure you do. Check out the list of posts below with brief summaries of each.
November 14-17 will be ASOR’s Annual Meeting in Chicago, and we will have some updates from the meeting, so be sure to check in for those! Also we will be focusing on the archaeology of Cyrpus this month, with posts from leading scholars on different periods of Cyprus’ history.
Additionally, La Sierra University is hosting, and ASOR is co-sponsoring, an archaeology weekend focusing on the archaeology of Cyrpus, November 10-11. Check out their program and stop by if you have a chance.Continue reading →
Specialized terminology, such as stake holders, the “universal museum,” provenance, or even the phrases, “cultural property” or “cultural heritage,” is often used during discussions between law enforcement professionals, such as Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in the US or the Carabinieri in Italy, diplomats (ICOMOS), lawyers, and scholars, including archaeologists. Although these terms allow us to sustain discussion across disciplines, they are often meaningless to non-specialists. In addition, this language can obscure the intellectual, emotional, and economic impact of the antiquities trade, much like the term “human trafficking” stands in for the more visceral, and potentially inflammatory, term “slavery.” My intent here is to break down some of these terms, describe their core concepts, and problematize some of the assumptions beneath them.
What is cultural heritage?
The terms cultural heritage or cultural property are intentionally broad, as they must encompass a world’s worth of objects, sites, and monuments. If you asked me to describe the cultural heritage of the United States, I might mention Gettysburg Battlefield, James Monroe’s home, Ash Lawn-Highland, or Chaco Canyon. I could also choose objects, such as the copy of the Declaration of Independence now in the National Archives, Native American arrowheads, or the sweetgrass baskets of Charleston, SC.
The southeastern provinces of Turkey will soon be home to a series of new, state-of-the-art, archaeology museums. Such buildings are being (or have already been) planned, constructed, remodeled, or expanded. The Gaziantep Museum, for instance, houses many of the Roman mosaics of Zeugma unearthed before the construction of the Birecik Dam. Other mosaics, discovered during the expansion of Şanlıurfa’s sewage system, will be displayed in an Arkeopark near the city center.
Diyarbakır, a third city in southeastern Turkey, is not lagging behind. Work is underway to transform its citadel (içkale) into an archaeology museum. Recent finds at sites threatened by the Ilısu Dam will make up a large part of its collection. Hence, the displaced antiquities will slowly find their ways to a new home. A win-win situation for Turkey, it would seem. As the country develops its infrastructure, investing in dams, roads, and sewage systems, it is simultaneously seen as protecting its past. A paradox, nevertheless, since it is these attempts to modernize that are threatening the country’s cultural heritage in the first place.
This year we are pleased to announce a new workshop session for the ASOR Annual Meeting, Archaeological Conservation Strategies in the Near East. Both conservators and archaeologists tend to present research within their own fields, effectively segregating the disciplines. But this year, thanks to ASOR, we have an opportunity to foster collaboration and promote information sharing among conservators and archaeologists working in the Near East. As conservators who work on excavations in the Near East, this topic is important to us and we hope you’ll find it interesting and important, too.
The workshop contributors will present multi-disciplinary projects and research on archaeological heritage from Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Iraq. Topics examined will include regional trends in conservation, balancing preservation and access, site management, treatments of challenging materials, and collaborations with local conservation and archaeological communities. Moderated discussions between the presentations will engage the contributors as well as the audience, creating an ongoing dialogue that we hope will ultimately improve preservation for archaeological materials and sites in the Near East. If you have questions, insights, or just an interest in these topics, please join us. Continue reading →
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). 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. Continue reading →
Certain images from the ancient past stand out in popular imagination: the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” Moses, David, Goliath and other characters from the Hebrew bible, and the Persian conflict with the Greeks, to name just a few. But as any specialist knows, there is much more to the history and cultures of the ancient Near East. For example, our modern judicial system—with judges, witnesses, and court records—is based on similar practices from Iraq in the second millennium BCE, while most existing alphabets derived from the Phoenicians, seafaring merchants who sailed from Lebanon thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, the wider public does not know that this region—home to some of the earliest developments in the arts and sciences, religion, and political organization—continues to exert an influence on contemporary societies around the world. Part of the mission of the Ancient Middle East Education and Research Institute (AMEERI) is to remedy this situation by making study of the ancient past a normal part of public education and mainstream media. Continue reading →
By: Bert de Vries (Calvin College) and Muaffaq Hazza (Umm el-Jimal)
In 2012 the Umm el-Jimal (UJ) Project received a grant from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) to engage in preservation and presentation of House XVII/XVIII, the very large Byzantine/Umayyad House famous for its fourth-floor level double windows (Photo 1). The objective was to preserve the ruin as it was and make it presentable, safe and understandable for visitors. This conservation project is a component of a larger effort to make Umm el-Jimal meaningful in a participatory way in the lives of various communities ranging from international tourists and scholars to the local residents of the UJ Municipality*. See for example, the various components of the new website, www.ummeljimal.org, which is designed to serve these communities with multi-layered content like Site Histories, a Museum, a Guided Tour, the Education Curriculum Guide, a Research Library, Ethnological Films and much more. Continue reading →
During spring 1936 the nationalistic uprising of the Palestinian Arab population against Mandatory British rule and Jewish mass immigration became more and more violent. A strike was declared on Jaffa port, in those days still one of most important harbors of Palestine. Groups of Palestinians left the narrow alleys of the Old City, the “Kasbah,” carried out attacks on the representatives of the Mandatory government or on Jews and found shelter afterwards in the labyrinth of the long-grown city on the mound of biblical Yafo. The reaction of the British was both, violent and effective. Under the cover of announced measures to improve the infrastructure, three broad paths, each between 10 and 30 meters wide were opened in the Old City creating what looked like anchor-shaped trenches from above, giving the name to this operation. The trenches were created using large amounts of explosives to detonate and demolish more than 200 buildings (Gavish 1983).
Old City of Jaffa before and after Operation Anchor 1936
By: Alison Damick, Columbia University, and Ahmad Lash, The Department of Antiquities of Jordan
Azraq, an oasis village in the northeastern Jordanian steppe, sits on the crossroads of the highways connecting Jordan to Saudi Arabia and Iraq [Fig 1]. Its remarkable archaeological record reflects millennia of human activity; the first recorded human occupation in the Azraq Basin dates to more than 300,000 years ago. Including prehistoric, Roman, Byzantine, and early and middle Islamic sites, the 13,000 km² basin area currently hosts a total of 157 documented archaeological sites. A great concern of recent years has been how to effectively protect those sites from the various threats they face, including environmental degradation and erosion, increased vehicle traffic, construction projects and looting. Co-emergent with this concern is the increasing interest among archaeologists in the close relationship between the contemporary world of which archaeological practice is a part and the narrative of the past that is produced from its activities. In 2008, the Azraq Community Archaeology Program (ACAP) was initiated to address these issues. We’d like to use this brief presentation of our experiences with the project to raise some of the issues we’ve encountered in practice and in theory, as launching pads for further discussion. Continue reading →
Jason Felch, a Los Angeles Times investigative reporter and co-author of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum—a look into the Getty’s involvement in the illegal antiquities trade—agreed to answer a few questions for us about his latest project, WikiLoot.
Can you sum up what WikiLoot is?
WikiLoot is a web platform for collaborative research of the global trade in looted antiquities. We’ll be posting primary- and secondary-source documents about the trade – photographs, business records, court documents, press accounts — and crowdsourcing the tagging, linking, translation and analysis of those records. The result will be an authoritative public database that yields new insights into the size and scope of the trade and helps raise awareness about the consequences of looting. Continue reading →
Figure 1: Petra’s most famous icon, the Al-Khazne (‘the Treasury’) tomb façade with tourist camel riders (Q. Tweissi).
By: Christopher A. Tuttle
Two hundred years ago, on 22 August 1812, the ancient city of Petra was re-identified by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the first European on record to have visited the site since the 13thcentury. Word of his discovery quickly spread and other visitors soon followed in his footsteps—inaugurating a bicentennial of exploration and research at this amazing site located in what is today southern Jordan.
Petra served as the capitol city for the kingdom of Nabataea from at least the second century BCE until Trajan’s annexation of the region into the Roman Empire in 106 CE. Under Roman rule, the city retained its importance and became the administrative center for the new province of Arabia Petraea. Although heavily damaged by a major earthquake in May 363 CE, the city continued to play a significant role in the region during the Byzantine period when it served as an episcopal see of the Christian church. Continue reading →
ASOR is dedicated to promoting knowledge of the peoples and cultures of the Near East. Often we focus on recent archaeological fieldwork and academic analysis of finds and texts, last month’s focus on Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls being a prime example of the latter. However, other parts of the archaeological process are just as important to study and discuss. We have chosen to highlight those aspects related to cultural heritage during October here on the blog. Continue reading →
The recent upsurge in high profile news stories, in Time and other mass media outlets, about the looting of archaeological sites in Syria has been accompanied by the usual public handwringing by archaeologists and heritage protection organizations. The terrible impact on the world’s cultural patrimony is bewailed, and the heads of UNESCO, the World Monuments Fund, and so on call upon the international community to stop the destruction. What is most depressing, for those of us who study the history of cultural heritage protection in times of armed conflict, is how similar these public statements are to those made in the runup to and the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thousands of looting pits pockmarking Iraq bear witness to how ineffectual those earlier pronouncements were, and yet the archaeological and heritage community continues to issue them.