Saturday, 7 March 2015

"Saving' Archaeology, or Trophy Collectables?

The Portable Antiquities Scheme approach to the past comes through in a tweet last night from Historian, broadcaster, historical correspondent and  consultant.Matthew Ward ("@HistoryNeedsYou") prompted by alarmist secondhand newspaper stories about the ISIL destruction of Nimrud:
Please visit @britishmuseum to see the archaeology saved from Nimrud Iraq
According to the Nimrud Project's list of Museums in the United Kingdom with objects from Nimrud material from the site is held in 13 museums in the United Kingdom. Most of these are in the British Museum, but the ones on display come mainly from the excavations carried out by Henry Layard from 1845-51 (though there is also material from the campaign by Max Mallowan 1949-57). In the case of the Layard excavations, one can hardly talk of 'saving the archaeology', individual items were hoiked out and the best bits shipped for trophy display in London - to be seen by admiring Victorians who could travel to see them in the dust of the Ottoman desert. In any casde, while Layard produced a number of illustrated volumes describing his diggings in Nineveh, opposite Mosul, his work at Nimrud was not the subject of any monographic publications. Excavations of the site had ceased about 1880. When Agatha Christie visited the site with Max Mallowan in 1949 she was enchanted by the site and its environs, she described it:
'... a beautiful spot .... The Tigris was just a mile away, and on the great mound of the Acropolis, big stone Assyrian heads poked out of the soil. In one place there was the enormous wing of a great genie. It was a spectacular stretch of country - peaceful, romantic and inpregnated with the past.'
And it is that which we should be aiming to save, this sense of place, and its function as giving roots to a local community. It is that, of course, that ISIL is so determined to destroy.

In addition, the information held in the stratigraphy of the site is our only means to obtain certain types of information about the society and communities that used it in the past, and that story is part of our story, the story of all of our pasts. Collectors, looters, dealers, vandals all sweep aside that story in the pursuit of their own narrow aims to have, display, destroy. We should all oppose the deliberate and cynical damage and  destruction of a finite, precious and fragile resource the careful management of which should be the concern of all of us.

UPDATE 7th March 2015:
Well, of course that point went w-a-a-y over the head of a US dealer and the IAPN/PNG paid lobbyist with their blinkered object-centred and cardboard cutout view of "archaeology". The propensity of these people  to misconstrue simple notions expressed in plain English suggests they have fallen victim to the  collection-driven mind-rot which we see in the collectors' comments to the CPAC.

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