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In Which I Contradict Myself (again)

November 12, 2015

A while ago I said that I didn’t think this blog was the place for me to express my opinions, or at least not my political opinions. Obviously I’ve done this explicitly several times with remarks about UKIP, Eurovision/gender identity, pacifism etc and my writing is always going to have my political slant, but this post is going to be me, my opinion, my view, not just an aside but up front and out loud. This has been brewing for a while and finally I’ve realised I have to say something. I want to talk about the way we, as archaeologists, respond to news about the destruction of antiquities and particularly when it’s done by the Islamic State. Several things have set me off on this. The media reports in particular, especially when an archaeologist is asked for their opinion of the latest destruction and, regardless of what they might have said, all that is reported is the terrible loss of these important sites. Then, while I was in a session at the EAA someone remarked about an image of Syria ‘Oh, every time I hear about ISIS destroying another archaeological site I feel sick’. I didn’t say anything and I should have done, it’s been bugging me ever since that I didn’t speak out then. I remember similar views being expressed when Britain and the US bombed Iraq, killing hundreds – which went largely unmarked – destroying the archaeology and, as was later reported with much outrage, looting the Baghdad museum. Similar things were said around the Egyptian Revolution with the thefts and damage to the Cairo Museum. There are many other examples, I’ll leave you to supply your own. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, I follow Sam Hardy’s Conflict Antiquities blog and this post in particular helped coalesce what I’d been feeling. And finally, yesterday was Remembrance Day.

Now, I’m not going to try to defend the destruction of cultural property, it is indefensible. I’m not even going to discuss the destruction of cultural property under Assad, I’ll leave that to Sam who is an expert. Nor do I intend to get into an argument about what was or wasn’t stolen/destroyed in Egypt, Baghdad, etc etc. What I am saying is that maybe it’s time that we, as archaeologists, stop deploring the loss of archaeological sites and artefacts by IS and start deploring the deaths caused by both sides. Maybe it’s time we stopped talking about the loss of irreplaceable archaeology and started talking about the loss of irreplaceable people. Because those people, regardless of their beliefs, regardless of whether they’re involved on one side or the other or are simply caught up in the conflict, are irreplaceable, they’re mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, grandparents – they’re people and they’re dead. The sites? Well, obviously they’re important to us, but they’re just stuff, they’re not living, breathing people. At some point, in all wars, the two (or however many) sides have to sit down and talk. Maybe, as archaeologists, if we turned round and said ‘The important thing here is not the archaeology it’s that you all stop killing people’ it would have an effect?

It’s got to be worth trying. It may have no effect at all, but I think we need to think about our priorities and our humanity here, rather than about our archaeology.

I promise normal service will be resumed next week and I’ll be back talking about conferences, museums, book reviews I’ve failed to write and how I have no time because one of the chickens is sick – she really is not a well bird, we’re very worried about her and also worried that we’re worrying about a hen – my children, all the usual stuff.

In the meantime, stay safe, may peace be upon you and have a great weekend.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Thea De Armond permalink
    November 13, 2015 4:34 pm

    I really appreciated this post. The whole thing seems like a rather milquetoast way for people to feel politically / publicly engaged. It’s deeply depressing.

  2. Monica Barnes permalink
    November 16, 2015 6:11 pm

    As it happens, I’m a survivor of the 9/11/01 attacks on New York and Washington. At the time, my husband and I both lived and worked very close to the World Trade Center. During the Iraq War that followed, an archaeologist who was safe in Kansas on 9/11, that is, well over one thousand miles away from New York and Washington, had the nerve to send me a posting to the effect that the looting of the Baghdad Museum was a worse atrocity than the 9/11 attacks because, well, people are just people. There are lots of us and we can easily be replaced. However, the ancient objects in the Baghdad Museum were unique and could never be duplicated.

    OK, this guy has something of a reputation for insensitivity, but his crass remark made me think a lot about the value of both human life and of objects. To me, there is nothing more valuable than human life. I spend a lot of time preserving and promulgating cultural patrimony and for sure I know it is very precious. However, if I had to chose between dragging a child or a box of artifacts out of a burning museum, the artifacts would have to fend for themselves.

    I, too, deeply appreciate Julia’s post. Events in Paris this past weekend emphasize the urgency of the struggle for peace. In saving human lives we also protect the material environment, but let’s give first priority to human lives.

  3. harngroup permalink*
    November 17, 2015 12:44 am

    Thank you Thea and Monica – and also Kate who emailed me. I was very wary about posting such a personal piece but I’m really glad I did.

  4. Sharon permalink
    December 4, 2015 11:56 am

    With you so much on this one. I was sickened by all the news coverage with people saying how irreplaceable the various archaeological sites were but nothing about the irreplaceable people who’d also been destroyed.



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