Saturday 18 October 2014

The Future of War in the Middle East and the Future of Archaeology

Inasmuch as the changing political landscape of the modern Middle East affects the work scholars of the ancient Near East do, Christopher Jones has a post on his excellent 'Gates on Nineveh' blog on the political context of heritage preservation planning 'The Future of War in the Middle East and the Future of Archaeology' October 17, 2014. He argues that the strategy of creating well-armed local militias fighting for their communities implemented by Major General Qassem Suleimani (the former commander of Quds Force, the covert action and special operations division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) since early 2013 has changed the situation on the ground. He addresses the question of what this stalemate means for archaeology:
First, it means things could get a whole lot worse before they get better. Massacres and genocide are usually accompanied by attempts to erase the heritage of those people being driven out in hopes that they will never return.
Second, archaeology will have to come to terms with the fact that Arab nationalism is dead. Archaeology was well supported by twentieth century nationalists as a source of pride and a potential unifying force. National museums and antiquities authorities supported excavations and research. Sites were protected both as economic tourist magnets and national symbols. But since 2011 this system is collapsing. The idea that the Arabic-speaking world has one unified identity from Morocco to the Persian Gulf was shattered into pieces as country after country tore itself apart. As the ideology which held post-colonial states in one piece vanished, people fell back on identities that pre-date the formation of the modern Middle East.
He supports the idea of accompanying military training brought from outside (the US for example) with training in heritage preservation of all kinds - but recognises that this approach is fraught with great risks.
The environment that leads to the rise of warlords favors the rise of a type of leader who is able to command followers and control territory through a combination of patronage and violence. Archaeologists who work with such groups run the risk of being associated with questionable characters, or even have their work harnessed to promote sectarian causes. Financial pressures may make it irresistibly tempting for local strongmen to sell antiquities rather than preserve them. Finally, a close association with a para-state group may come at the cost of being blacklisted from working in certain countries or even run afoul of anti-terrorism laws. But this is the world we live in, and any attempt to save antiquities on the ground will have to take into account who controls that ground. [...]  Such work should proceed only with extreme caution and with limited objectives. Perhaps in the future as the front lines harden into states in everything but name more work will be possible. But with the changing nature of warfare in the Middle East new paradigms of archaeological engagement will be needed. And if we are going to use archaeology to help with postwar reconstruction, as Burnham and others at the Metropolitan Museum event suggested it can, we need to wrestle with how the Middle East is changing. I welcome a vigorous discussion on these topics.
On past showing, there is no point in expecting collectors, still less dealers, with their bent logic, superficiality and self-interest blinkered views to take part in such debate in any meaningful form.

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