Archaeology after the Arab Spring

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By: Jesse Casana

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[1]. 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.

Casana_Fig1_Breasted_Dura

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/).

But Breasted’s progress was soon hampered by growing violence in rural regions, the beginning of the Iraqi Revolt of 1920[2]. Then, in late April, the British civil commissioner in Baghdad told Breasted about some ancient frescos exposed during the excavation of bunkers at the site we now know as Dura Europos and asked him to investigate. The commissioner also confidentially informed Breasted that British forces were planning an imminent withdrawal as the supply lines were increasingly difficult to defend against attacks.

The Chicago team raced north to Dura, arriving at the site the same day that the British were retreating southwards. Breasted convinced them to stay for one more day, over which time the team frantically recorded the Byzantine-era paintings that were then exposed. Several years later, when it was again safe to visit Dura, most of the paintings had been destroyed or damaged, some by looting, others by vandals. But the photographs and drawings made by the Chicago team preserved a record of these unique works of ancient art, and they were published in 1924 as the first volume in what would become the well-known Oriental Institute Publication series[3].

The story of Breasted’s adventures, maneuvering to achieve what archaeological objectives he could within a world wracked by political turmoil, is familiar to many of us pursuing Near Eastern archaeology in the wake of the Arab Spring. Most archaeological fieldwork requires large groups of international scholars to live and work in remote areas for long periods of time, and such endeavors would be dangerous to undertake during times of political instability.

We need look back no further than the 1960s and 1970s, when southern Iraq and southwestern Iran were cauldrons for innovative archaeological research, with many of today’s most prominent Near Eastern scholars cutting their teeth on fieldwork in the region. But effectively all research in Iran ended abruptly in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, and the ensuing Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s brought research in neighboring Iraq to a crawl.

The first Gulf War of 1991 finally drove all remaining Western archaeologists from Iraq, and subsequent years saw the imposition of crushing international sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime. These sanctions starved local antiquities authorities and their legal restrictions effectively prevented any fieldwork for the next decade. While a few scholars managed to conduct limited archaeological research in Iran and Iraq after their respective closures in 1979 and 1991, most were instead driven to begin projects elsewhere. Syria and Turkey can be seen as beneficiaries of the closures of Iran and Iraq, as areas of these countries that had previously seen almost no research soon became some of the field’s main research foci.

Casana_Fig 2_TellQarqur_steptrench

Tell Qarqur, western Syria, where the ASOR-sponsored project, seen here during the excavation of a step trench in 2008, is now on indefinite hiatus (photo credit: Jesse Casana).

Today we see a similar process unfolding, as a generation of Near Eastern archaeologists trained on projects in Syria, Egypt and Turkey now find themselves in search of new opportunities elsewhere. In Syria, where I was directing the ASOR-sponsored excavation at Tell Qarqur, archaeological fieldwork has been brought to a standstill by the current civil war. I, like many of my colleagues, cancelled a field season planned for summer 2011, following the swelling protests that began the previous spring. Not feeling it safe to return in the years since, I left behind a storeroom packed to the ceiling with artifacts and equipment, a partially installed Tell Qarqur gallery in the Hama museum, and an entire community who depended on the excavation for a large part of their income.

As the situation in Syria has continued to deteriorate over the past two years, the civil war has killed tens of thousands, destroyed the lives and homes of so many others, and threatens to tear apart the country itself. The concerns of archaeologists have understandably been sidelined by the humanitarian crisis, but inevitably, the archaeological heritage of Syria will suffer as well, as the security vacuum has encouraged looting and destruction of sites, monuments, and museums.

It remains difficult to determine the extent to which looting is taking place, but an analysis based largely on videos and images from social media, published in May 2012, shows extensive damage to many major World Heritage sites[4]. A more recent report released in February 2013 by beleaguered antiquities officials in Damascus suggests the situation has grown worse over the past year[5]. Occasional reports by international journalists similarly imply widespread destruction, some the result of targeted looting campaigns, others simply driven by people seeking refuge, as appears to be the case among the Dead Cities of western Syria, where families now hide in subterranean Roman tombs[6].  Given the extremely limited access of archaeologists and antiquities officials to most of Syria, we can assume the situation there is much worse than can be documented at this point, while any hopes for resumed fieldwork are likely years off.

In Egypt, the situation is less dire, but since protests erupted there in 2011, archaeological research in Egypt has been seriously challenged by the ongoing threat of violence throughout the country. Many field projects have been forced to truncate their planned research, or to go on hiatus completely. Looting of sites has proliferated, while the collapse of tourism revenue has left Egyptian antiquities authorities with major budgetary shortfalls[7]. Renewed protests and violence that have swept across Egypt since January 2013, alongside the volatile political situation, bodes ill for archaeology there in the near term.

The ongoing political instability in the wake of the Arab Spring makes a difficult situation worse for would-be Near Eastern archaeologists, as the options for fieldwork in many areas dwindle. Iran remains almost entirely closed to foreign teams, and even when research permits have been granted by antiquities authorities, visas are often not forthcoming. Most of southern Iraq is still dangerous ten years after the US-led invasion, and the handful of scholars willing to brave the uncertainty have found difficulty in securing permits.

Periodic violence in Lebanon has made it challenging to work there for decades, and the perennial threat of civil war keeps many archaeologists from investing the time and money to develop new projects there. In Jordan, analysts fear that a flood of Syrian refugees, a faltering economy, and a rising tide of protests could destabilize that country[8], making it too a potentially risky prospect for new projects. In Cyprus, a third of the island – and the portion closest to the Near Eastern mainland – is considered by many legal experts to be occupied territory, making archaeological research there a potential violation of international law[9]. As a stable, wealthy, NATO-member state, Turkey would appear to be an obvious destination for displaced archaeologists, yet even prominent faculty at well-funded institutions face major hurdles in securing and maintaining Turkish research permits[10]; the prospects for young scholars who want to begin new projects there are even dimmer.

The challenges of working in the traditional core zones of the Near East, now heightened by the Arab Spring, are beginning to push archaeologists into other, less explored regions, and those areas will undoubtedly be the archaeological beneficiaries of the transformations now afoot. Antiquities authorities in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, an area that even Breasted considered too dangerous to visit in 1920, have proven especially welcoming of foreign archaeologists. Over the past two years there has been an explosion of new research in the region, and I, like many colleagues formerly working in Syria, have recently begun a new project there.

Casana_Fig 3_Kurdistan

Author Jesse Casana (left) poses with a Kurdish farmer on a new regional survey project in the upper Diyala/Sirwan River Valley, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, October 2012 (photo credit: Claudia Glatz).

Likewise, major capital investments in cultural heritage institutions in several Gulf states, such as the establishment of UCL Qatar in Doha and the creation of the Saadiyat museum campus in Abu Dhabi, are now also attracting many scholars to those previously little-studied areas. Other Near Eastern archaeologists have shifted their focus to the Fertile Crescent’s lesser-known neighbors, looking north to the Caucuses, particularly in Armenia and Azerbaijan, or to the south, in Sudan and Ethiopia. Such geographic displacement is intellectually healthy; it forces us to ask new questions and leads us to discover new things.

Fundamentally, however, political instability is bad for archaeology; it makes prevention of looting and site destruction vastly more challenging, and it often makes conducting archaeological fieldwork fall somewhere on the continuum from risky to suicidal. In these ways, the revolutions that have gripped the Arab world over the past two years have inevitable, deleterious consequences for the archaeology in those regions, even while prompting new research in other areas. What the history of our field teaches us, however, is that when dreams for peace and prosperity are ultimately achieved in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, there will be many archaeologists ready to resume the exploration of those countries’ remarkable cultural heritage.

Jesse Casana is Associate Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Anthropology and Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.


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[1] A lively account of the expedition can be read in, J.H. Breasted (1922) The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: A Beginning and a Program. Oriental Institute Communications 1. University of Chicago Press.

[2] For a recent discussion of events surrounding the 1920 Iraqi Revolt, see: Charles Tripp (2007) A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press.

[3] J.H. Breasted (1924) Oriental Forerunners of Byzantine Painting: First century wall paintings from the fortress of Dura on the Middle Euphrates. Oriental Institute Publications 1. University of Chicago Press.

[4] Cunliffe, Emma (2012) Damage to the Soul: Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Conflict. Durham University and Global Heritage Fund. http://ghn.globalheritagefund.com/uploads/documents/document_2107.pdf

[5] AbdulKarim, Maamoun (2013) The Status of Syrian Antiquities since the beginning of the Crisis until Feb 1, 2013, and their protection measures. Unpublished report of the République Arabe Syrienne Ministère de la Culture, Direction Générale des Antiquités et des Musées.

[6] McEvers, Kelly; Rima Marrouch (2013) Displaced Syrians Find Shelter In Ancient ‘Dead Cities.’ National Public Radio. March 8, 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/03/08/173788537/displaced-syrians-find-shelter-in-ancient-dead-cities

[7] Marchant, Jo (2011) Archaeology meets politics: Spring comes to ancient Egypt. Nature November 23, 2011. http://www.nature.com/news/archaeology-meets-politics-spring-comes-to-ancient-egypt-1.9416

[8] e.g., Azizon, Maha Hosain (2012) Is Jordan Headed for an Arab Spring? Bloomberg Businessweek, November 25, 2012  http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-11-25/is-jordan-headed-for-an-arab-spring; Riedel, Bruce (2012) Jordan’s Arab Spring. The Daily Beast, November 15, 2012. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/15/jordan-s-arab-spring.html

[9] Crain, Amanda (2008) Opening Pandora’s Box: How an archaeological find divides the Cypriots. The German Times, September 2008.  http://www.german-times.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=8478&Itemid=12

[10] Güsten, Susanne (2011) Turkey Presses Harder for Return of Antiquities. New York Times May 25, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/26/world/europe/26iht-M26C-TURKEY RETURN.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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9 Comments for : Archaeology after the Arab Spring
  1. Pingback: Archaeology after the Arab Spring | Fr Stephen Smuts

  2. Pingback: Unearthed: 15th May 2013 « The Archaeology of Tomb Raider

    • David
    • May 21, 2013

    Interesting article that skirts around the Middle East noting every country except Israel. Considering that stable foreign excavations continue there in increasing numbers makes the omission very strange to put it mildly!!

    • David
    • May 22, 2013

    Reference / Footnote 5: [5] AbdulKarim, Maamoun (2013) "The Status of Syrian Antiquities since the beginning of the Crisis until Feb 1, 2013, and their protection measures" is available to download here:
    http://www.cultureindevelopment.nl/index.php?id=1

    • David
    • May 22, 2013

    Also, Breasted's (1922) "The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: A Beginning and a Program" can be found online at the Internet Archive:
    https://archive.org/details/jstor-528714

  3. yes true…a lot of antiques is arriving from syria and offered for sale in lebanon and jordon …i was told that 1200 items was offered for sale 14 days ago in beirut …and over 3000 treasure hunters are digging in syria every day…

    • Jamal
    • June 28, 2013

    Interesting that Mr Casana is affiliated with the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies, so does this mean the Center receives contributions from the Saudi government, which in turn is funding al Qaida terrorists in Syria?

    We've already seen the disregard al Qaida has for pre-Islamic antiquities, and Shia and Christian heritage sites in Syria, so can Mr Casana confirm that the Center receives no money from Saudi Arabia, and if it does, are there any plans to reject future money and change the name of the Center given this association between al Qaida and Saudi Arabia?

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