Friday 12 April 2024

Spotlighting War’s Cultural Destruction in Central and Eastern Ukraine

We can confidently say that Europe
has not experienced destruction of this magnitude,
let alone this quickly, since World War II.

An important essay by  an archaeologist, anthropologist, and film expert in The Conversation (Kuijt, I. Shydlovskyi, P. and Donamaura W 'Spotlighting War’s Cultural Destruction in Ukraine' 9th April 2024)

War does not just destroy lives. It also tears at the fabric of culture. And in the case of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now about to enter its third year, the remarkable destruction of Ukrainian history and heritage since 2022 hasn’t been a matter of collateral damage. Rather, the Russian military has deliberately targeted museums, churches, and libraries that are important to the Ukrainian people.
A small group of archaeologists and filmmakers working closely with Ukrainian colleagues, made two nine-day trips (in March and October 2023) to the eastern parts of Ukraine to try and get an idea of what was happening. This is something I have been thinking about, looking at the various media reports coming out of the area and some of the recent satellite coverage of defensive systems. The situation in Ukraine is exactly a mirror of what we see in Syria where tells, walled forts and towns have been turned into defensive positions. The authors report:
If traveling in Ukraine has taught us one important lesson, it’s that the digging of trenches can erase history. While the destruction of churches, libraries, and museums viscerally evokes a sense of loss, there’s an entire unseen world below the ground surface—filled with untold numbers of artifacts, bones, and buried buildings—that is exposed when trenches are created.

In fact, it’s likely that this war has destroyed more history and archaeology buried below the ground than above it.

As armies did during World War I, the Ukrainian military built deep trenches and bunkers along rivers and high ground in the early months of the war. Two years later, these defensive trench systems are a central element of the ground war and demarcate the front lines. In many cases, the trenches were dug into the remains of buried archaeological sites, most of which were previously unknown and untouched.

In March 2023, for example, we visited sites around Irpin and Bucha, two villages on the northern edge of Kyiv, to document how medieval and Bronze Age sites buried below the surface had been destroyed by trenches or, in other cases, are now blanketed by minefields to stop Russian military units.

We also went to the 11th-century archaeological site of Oster. Perched on a small hill, southeast of Chernihiv, Oster was an important regional center in the medieval period. It had a brick-and-stone church and a large settlement nearby. As part of the siege of Chernihiv in March 2022, Ukrainian troops built deep trenches and bunkers around the edges of Oster, since the site overlooks rivers and crossing points.

When we visited Oster a year after the invasion, we noticed that the trench system around the church was dug into a large 11th-century settlement and burial ground. Lying exposed on the dirt piles along the trenches were medieval human skeletal remains. The more we studied the system of trenches and bunkers, which encircles an area of about 650 feet, the more human bones we saw.

A crew of archaeologists has returned to photograph the destruction of these burial grounds. But given the ongoing war, it isn’t possible to fully document the destruction, let alone fill in the trenches, which still may be needed by soldiers.
The trenches are also part of the archaeology of this War and apart from the aerial and satellite photo evidence, some will end up being preserved as field monuments to this devastating episode in the future, and the fact that they destroyed archaeological sites will be the least of the problems.

Vignette: Ukrainian infantrymen in a partially dug trench along the frontline near Bakhmut, Ukraine. Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images.

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