Thursday, 10 September 2015

An Archaeology of Care

Red cross, red crescent, red crystal
Bill Caraher's 'The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World' blog has a thought-producing post on ' An Archaeology of Care' 10th September 2015
Like many archaeologists, I’ve been horrified and outraged by the events in Syria over the past month. [...] My greatest concern throughout the continuous outpouring of outrage and horror regarding the destruction of archaeological sites is that there has been so little effort by archaeologists to see their discipline as a way to understand more fully the human cost of the destabilized Syria.
I am not entirely sure I agree with his postulates, I consider presenting ISIL as relying on archaeological "disciplinary recognition of artifacts and monuments (through museums, archaeological parks, etc.) to direct their attacks on civilization" is misrepresenting what they are all about. Now Dr Caraher, tell us what antiquity collectors can do to use what they do "as a way to understand more fully the human cost of the destabilized Syria".


Bill Caraher said...


Just to clarify a bit, I directed my call for alternative action (as much as it was one!) to archaeologists as people who both contribute to how our culture values objects and as a group who have a method that is already being used to document the contemporary world. I am not as familiar with the culture around antiquities collectors, but off the top of my head, I could think of three interesting opportunities.

1. Museums and private collections could turn a percentage of their proceeds (for a time?) to organizations who work with Syrian and other refugees from the violence in the Middle East.

2. Museums and Collectors might run auctions (antiquity collectors seem to like auctions), but instead of selling antiquities, they could purchase donations (objects, of course!) to refugee organizations. It would be pretty cool to auction off donations of water, food, clothing and the like to help communities who live amidst the antiquities that these institutions and individuals fetishize!

3. Museums and private collectors could turn their exhibition spaces over to shows that show the human cost of violence in the Middle East, and try for a moment to shift our attention away from the destruction of monuments and objects and toward the catastrophe for the communities effected by ISIS. My impression is that antiquities collectors often have intimate connections with the communities who provide (illegally, of course), artifacts for the market. Showing compassion for these communities might convince some folks that the sale of antiquities - while criminal - is nevertheless a human and potentially a humane encounter between rational actors.

It goes without saying that collectors and dealers and museums could use their contacts "on the ground" to understand and even mitigate the impact that ISIS is having on communities just as drug runners, smugglers, and various kinds of "bandits" have historically worked to undermine the kind of centralized authority that ISIS is trying to impose on the region. My experience with looters is that they are intimately familiar with various forms of resistance ranging from moving objects to the market, avoiding detection, and bringing wealth into communities (and their own pockets) in hard to trace ways. As an archaeologist my explicit interaction with these people is extremely limited, but I imagine dealers and collectors have much greater familiarity with how these groups interact. Imagine an army of looters working to undermine ISIS authority on the ground in places where Western forces fear to tread!

Thanks for the comments and the link to my post and thanks for the push to think outside the disciplinary and institutional box.



Bill Caraher said...

Hi Paul,

Sorry to take so long to comment here. I tried to comment yesterday and I think I accidentally deleted the comment before sending it up for moderation. Ah technology.

I do think that the collecting community has a key role to play here. Aside from the obvious: not buying looted antiquities (full stop) and avoid any antiquities associated with the conflict areas.

Museums and private collectors and their aesthetic tastes have played a role in our fetishizing particular monuments, antiquities, and cultures. These values have guided the hand of an organization like ISIS and resulted in the destruction of monuments like the temple at Palmyra and significant and visible artifacts in museums throughout the conflict area.

To my mind, museums and collectors could work to raise money for the communities effected by ISIS and for refugees from that area. Many museums and collections have direct, regular contact with folks in these areas either through associated field work projects or through networks of dealers, looters, and informants. I would love to see compassion on the part of collectors for the communities so terribly disrupted.

I would also hope that major collections and museums might work to communicate the challenges that refugees are experiencing by shifting our focus from the destruction of admittedly august monuments and toward the human casualties of these conflicts. Putting refugee communities front-and-center not only offers a way to reassert our shared humanities in a direct and highly visible way (a goal that many major collections and museums share), but also to overwrite for a time the narrative that ISIS so wants the West to digest: look at what we think of your cultural values.

Finally, looters, dealers, and collectors rely on networks that function outside the control of centralized authorities. They move artifacts out of countries and funds into countries through obscured routes that avoid the detection of even sophisticated anti-smuggling surveillance. By all accounts, ISIS is not terribly sophisticated in their ability to manage their borders and it would fantastic if looter/dealer/collector networks could function to disrupt the rule of the ISIS state. I know this is a romantic ideal, but my experience Greece, for example, suggests that looters know the countryside better than local authorities and during conflicts like World War II looters and archaeologists worked together to disrupt the governance of the Nazi occupation! I have no idea what looters, dealers, and collectors are doing right now, largely because, that's not my crowd, but it seems like they are every bit as poised to engage in the fight against ISIS (and in some ways more so!) as archaeologists.

Anyway, those are my reflections on your question. Anything to get us away from the narrative of outrage for a bit (no matter how justified) and to shift out attention to immediate human costs would be a welcome respite.

Thanks again for the comments and link!


Paul Barford said...

I am not sure whether those two are supposed to be the same post twice, I did accept the first one almost immediately, it might be a "refresh page" issue if you did not see it. Anyway they both offer an interesting perspective.

As you know there is a huge debate in Europe about the refugees flooding out of Syria (especially) and I agree that heritage professionals have a huge role to play in fostering the sort of attitudes we need to accommodate these newcomers. The day after tomorrow here in Warsaw are two big marches on the issue of the refugees and the Barfords will be taking part in one of them.

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