Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sun in the eyes

Out here in Egypt it is part of my job to drive the mission jeep into the valley and pick up the local site foreman (rais) and the Antiquities Council inspector who watches over us and get them on site for the beginning of work, just after dawn. Every day on my way into (the old) New Qurna whichs east of the West Bank temples, for the past couple of weeks I've been getting the glare of the low rising sun in my eyes. The long straight road through the fields runs straight towards it for several kilometres. Being dazzled by the sun is not great fun at the best of times, but given that donkeys, sheep, pedestrians and the odd policeman tend to wander all over the road and tend to be diffiult to see in the glare, driving along that road is not the start of the working day I would choose for myself...

But the reason why that road does that is quite interesting. It turns off the route along the edge of the desert through the now vanished temple of Amenhotep III (that's the one that had the famous "Colossi of Memnon" outside). It runs along (or just inside depending on what reconstruction of the excavated evidence you believe in) the southern wall of the enclosure around the building, which was of course aligned on the rising sun. The alignment of the 3000-year old temple defines the aligmnment of the road leading down to the Nile crossing.

The pro-collecting lobbyists so often attempt to deny the right of the modern citizens of the "source countries" of the artefacts they covet to regard them, and the sites they come from, as part of their heritage. They argue that the populations which live now in countries such as Turkey and Egypt are culturally and genetically alien to the cultures and ethnicities of the creators of the objects they want to acquire without any concern about where they came from and how they came onto the market. After all even metal setected Roman finds from Britain cannot in any way be regarded as the cultural heritage of the British because "the Romans left Britain, didn't they?".

But they forget about the "power of place" the ability of one's own "small homeland" to be a feature of identity and pride. Here on the road to Qurna crammed with tourist buses (yes, even at dawn - they've driven across the desert all night from the Red Sea resorts) the grain of the landscape was created by the influence of the work of Amenhotep III's architects. The temple has all but gone but the people of Qurna still live their lives in its virtual shadow, in more ways than one. The temple of Amenhotep III is a feature that contributes to the definition of where they live. Contributing to the creation of a "place", a function many ancient sites and historic biuldings and landscapes fulfill all over the world (except perhaps Antartica and Wisconsin).

In my blog, I mentioned the trip to Abydos and Beit Khalaff the other day. The road map was pretty hopeless and we ended up going from village to village asking likely looking villagers and getting varying estimates of 'how far" away it was... The last guy we asked gave a blank look.. and then his eyes lit up "you want to go to the tomb of Djoser"? Now actually the tomb was not of Djoser (the builder of the step pyramid at Sakkara), but obviously local pride had endowed this somewhat imposing monument with a properly imposing identification as that of a real historical personage. This site is well off the normal tourist trail, and the villager's pride that a group of white guys had driven all the way from Deir El Bahari to come and see the local ancient monument was obvious.

Collectors and dealers all too easily assume that all the people living in the countries whose decontxtualised archaeological evidence they buy and sell feel no connection at all with the past of the regions they inhabit, that the past of their own land for them is as much a "foreign country" as it is for US and western European collectors. This seems an over-reaching and insulting assumption. It would be a risky assumption that it is only an anathema for archaeologists to have the sites and landmarks of the "source countries" of coveted collectables dug over and ransacked as a source of saleable, leaving only a devastation of holes and a litter of discarded (non-commercially viable) artefacts all over the place.


David Gill said...

Amenhotep III is relevant to the discussion of "portable" antiquities: see here.

Anonymous said...

Rejoicing in a sense of place ! Something the British should understand, after all-- with their traditions of walking and living the landscape and cycle touring etc.

J. Ma, Oxford

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