Thursday 17 May 2012

"Nationalism and the Antiquities Trade" as Seen from Minneapolis

By accident, I came across an interesting text referring to illegal excavation and the antiquities trade  on the internet and thought it worth sharing:  'Nationalism, Archaeology, and the Antiquities Trade in Turkey and Iraq' by Miranda Pettengill (Classics Department, Macalester College, Minnesota). The title in itself is intriguing, why was this theme of research chosen? The author of the paper investigates "how nationalism affects the antiquities trade", more specifically it aims to ask "if nationalistic ideologies affect non-professional illegal excavators and looters". The conclusion reached is that: "while economic concerns are paramount, nationalism does affect the way in which participants interact with the illicit market".

The author starts off by expounding the view from US 'global archaeology' that "it is evident that archaeology has been used [everywhere else?] prominently to support nationalistic ideology" (p.21). The result of this, she argues is:
"It stands to reason, then, that nationalism affects the way looters and illegal excavators approach the past, archaeology, and the antiquities trade". 
Eh? It is not really very clear what the author understands by "nationalism" in this context. We do not find in her paper any clear definition either of the several uses of the term, nor which of the several the author is applying here. Neither do we find that she is citing any of the literature written by those involved in collecting and the antiquity trade, many of whom see, or at least present, themselves as "internationalist". It would have been more satisfactory to see how the nationalism (colonialism) of collectors affects the antiquities trade. The author's main interest is however " to learn about the non-professional participants in the trade, those who do the most work and get paid the least".
This paper consists of five analytical sections. The first concerns the mechanics of the antiquities trade – who the players are, and the logistics of how objects are smuggled across borders. The second discusses archaeology and nationalism, with an overview of the ways in which archaeology and the past have been incorporated into nationalistic ideologies throughout history. The third is a case study of Turkey, which includes an examination of the development of archaeology in the country, along with the state of archaeology, nationalism, and the antiquities trade there today. The fourth is a case study of Iraq, which discusses not only the development of archaeology and nationalism throughout the last few centuries of the country’s history, but also the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003. [...] Finally, the fifth section concerns archaeotourism and community archaeology, and the ways in which socially conscious archaeological practices benefit everyone involved, archaeologists and local people alike.
The difficulties of her approach are signalled by the summing up of what she'd discovered about Iraq (where "the National Museum in Baghdad was extensively looted despite the US government’s predictions to the contrary"):
Assessing how nationalism affected the antiquities trade in Iraq is a complex task, and in truth, there is no one answer. Even the definition of “nationalism” is unclear in this context – does it mean loyalty to a certain regime? Does it simply mean a loyalty to one’s nation? Does that include a loyalty to a nation’s past? Different Iraqis would define nationalism in various ways. The biggest mistake the US made was to assume that loyalty to a nation’s past would trump anger against an oppressive regime. It is actually possible some looters did consider destroying the museum a nationalist move, perhaps “reclaiming” the country from Saddam’s grip, especially considering the importance he assigned to Mesopotamian antiquities. These same looters could also have considered returning the objects a nationalist act, although there was also monetary compensation involved. Ultimately, most people don’t perform an action for any one reason, and I can only simply say that conceptions of nationalism must inevitably differ from Iraqi to Iraqi.

Hmm. So the looting of government offices and shops at the same time was more an expression of "nationalism" or the fact that the stolen items might be useful or fetch something in the local bazaar? I'm not sure I understand the line of argument. Such an opinion requires, I feel, better justification than "stands to reason". The argument for Turkey is even more nebulous: "the country uses the pagan symbols of its past to bolster nationalistic pride, although the government’s policies make acting on these ideologies practically unviable". No connection is made between the imagery and why people loot artefacts to sell to the antiquities trade (no interviews with looters for example claiming: "It was the Mother Goddess, she made me do it!").

On reading this text, I wonder whether we are not seeing an ill-digested version of the argument that it is "nationalism" which is the cause of looting (and when we are saved from it by full globalisation and the disappearance of the nation-state, the problem will be solved). 

The final chapter goes on to advocate the 'feelgood factor' in archaeology: "it is also clear that practicing community archaeology is an effective way to offset damage done by looting, create jobs, and add an
element of multivocality to an excavation". The paper discusses a project at Quseir in Egypt (Egypt was not one of the case studies) which "demonstrate the power of the past to bring a community together and to reduce the destruction of cultural heritage". US collectors are of a similar view, but this rather ignores the fact that the concepts which are advocated are an imposition of western values on non-Western communities. It may come as a surprise to many Americans that  not everybody (yet) thinks about the world as they do about material aspects of (dead, past) culture.

But then, this raises a question: why the author ignores here the voices of the people she claims to be studying? What do they think? Why did she choose (just) two regions where the material available to her was (a relatively limited number of) second-hand accounts? She uses an Egyptian case study to show the positive effects of 'community archaeology' without showing the background by making Egypt one of her case studies. She says "The case studies of Turkey and Iraq were chosen based on the amount of information available and their relevance to the overall research". I'd say it would have been more relevant to look at a slightly wider range of material, such as for example pot-digging in the US. To what extent would this author find that "that nationalism affects the way looters and illegal excavators approach the past, archaeology, and the antiquities trade" there? And metal detectorists in Europe (in particular England)? These two cases are tempting for the researcher because there is a large amount of accessible material (a lot of it on the Internet available from anywhere in Minneapolis) which allows one to look at the actual words of the people involved in the activity, and place the general conclusions of such a study in a wider context. This American Exclusionism seems typical of the milieu, according to this view, the problems occur among the other folk, never at home. How can a US scholar discuss "looting" in far-off lands while failing to note any of the literature of the same problem right on their doorstep? It seems to me that the international trade in antiquities needs to be looked at in its broader rather than narrower context. Does community archaeology stop pot-digging in Utah and and metal detecting in Britain? To what extent is any of this related to a rather vague notion of "nationalism" there?

Anyway, these are interesting questions, and the author should be thanked for making her thoughts available online prompting further discussion.

Vignette:" Big Fat Mother Goddess somehow connected with nationalism in Turkey (after Wikipedia).

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