Another casualty of the culture wars

Damage to the Egyptian Museum is just the latest example of the politicisation of archaeology.


For many art professionals and cultural heritage specialists, the chaotic images from Cairo of surging protestors outside the besieged Egyptian Museum, the wobbly video footage of smashed display cases and the rumours of the looting of ancient sites throughout the country all brought back the painful memories of the sack of the Baghdad Museum eight years ago. Now, as then, international professional, cultural, and scholarly organisations—UNESCO, ICOMOS, ICOM and a wide range of NGOs—sprang into action, issuing expressions of concern and offers of technical assistance, to ensure that Egypt’s ancient sites and works of ancient art are protected.

More and more, the art and heritage community is preoccupied with legal and political issues. Gone are the days when relics of past civilisations were seen as objects for purely aesthetic reflection or historical documents of civilisation’s march onward. In an era of identity politics, antiquities and archaeological sites have become the apples of discord in bloody military conflicts, religious disputes and ethnic feuds. The Taliban’s dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the bitter wrangling over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem are some of the most widely publicised examples, but the list goes on and on.

In recent days, gun battles and artillery exchanges have erupted at the disputed temple of Preah Vihear on the Cambodian-Thai border; in Uganda, police have been dispatched to the ancient royal tombs at Kasubi, which were burned last March in a feud between rival regional groups. In India, the ancient mosque-temple complex at Ayodhya has been forcibly partitioned between Muslim and Hindu claimants.

Demands for the repatriation of archaeological finds and long-exhibited museum pieces have become matters of national honour. Egypt has demanded the return of the famous bust of Nefertiti from Germany, Iran has laid claim to the Cyrus cylinder in the British Museum and this year Peru successfully ended Yale’s century-long custody of the artefacts from Machu Picchu. One hardly need mention the Elgin marbles.

Why has archaeology become so politicised? Maybe it’s because an archaeological pedigree has become the sine qua non of legal and political legitimacy—and there are so many more claimants in our increasingly multicultural world. Archaeological sites and artefacts have become the tangible embodiments of sovereignty for rival powers, post-colonial states, newly emergent nations and diasporic groups. The historian Timothy Mitchell put it well in his recent book about 20th-century Egypt, Rule of Experts, suggesting “that for a state to prove it was modern, it helped if it could also prove that it was ancient”. Authenticated archaeological finds are far more convincing than folk traditions or religious beliefs in an age of science and empirical facts

The Unesco World Heritage List represents the most publicised roster of international historical legitimacy. Woe betide the nation accused of not effectively caring for its cultural heritage. Such neglect is seen as tantamount to the shirking of sovereign responsibilities. Italy has faced international embarrassment with the collapse of the House of the Gladiators at Pompeii, and the uncontrolled looting and antiquities smuggling by archaeologically rich but economically poor countries is seen as a disregard for the ancient sources of legitimacy. Worse still is the threat of intervention of international (read European and American) authorities in a nation’s antiquarian affairs. Recent statements of concern for the archaeological monuments of Egypt were greeted with hostility by Zahi Hawass, the hastily appointed minister of antiquities in the besieged Mubarak government. He assured the world that the heritage of Egypt was secure: “We don’t need any international supervision,” he declared.

Yet the politics of the past is not just a matter of rival states or peoples, not just a delineation of “our” antiquities versus “theirs”. There are, in fact, two parallel mindsets in our globalised world with regard to the politicisation of archaeology. On the one hand there are those who regard antiquities as objects of special concern and transcendent value, consciously and comfortably set apart, like themselves, from the instability and uncertainty of current political affairs. On the other, there are vast, largely poor, often angry populations across the world who deem archaeological sites and artefacts to be the idle obsession of others. This reflects a troubling reality of dispossession, exclusion, and inequality.

Sadly, the political manipulation, violent rivalries, and widespread destruction of the world’s archaeological resources continue. They are fuelled by support for, or resentment towards, self-justifying narratives of promised lands and chosen peoples, and by the modern, quasi-religious faith in timeless national identities and authoritarian political traditions the archaeological record has too often been interpreted to serve.

The writer is the president of the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites