Outrage and the Plight of Cultural Heritage: an Outsider’s Perspective

e corbettBy Elena Corbett

While this blog post is addressed to ASOR’s archaeological community, I am not an archaeologist, nor do I specialize in the ancient.  And I find the “oriental” in ASOR cringe-worthy.  After getting a Master’s in Islamic Archaeology, I went to the dark side-modern Middle East history.  It’s a better place for people who hate pottery and love modern languages, for those who are more interested in living people, or at least people who were more recently living.  And it’s a better place for those of us who recognize and readily admit that we are political creatures, engaged—as are all producers of knowledge, archaeologists included—in what are ultimately political acts.  It was there among the moderns that this political self found a much more productive avenue of scholarly inquiry for a life-long obsession with archaeology.  Archaeology is, after all, politics.  And the map of the modern Middle East has its inception in exactly that, beginning with the “holy land” imaginary of the Victorian milieu mapped into reality by the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) in its Survey of Western Palestine (1871-1877)[1]. This map was destined after the Great War to replace the extant, indigenous holy land of the diverse late Ottoman Empire so embedded in unquestioned Abrahamic tradition and practice[2].

It’s safe to assume that any one of us who finds ourselves on this site—reading, blogging, responding—is a person with visceral feelings about damage to heritage.  The callous, irreparable, human-made variety cuts us sincerely, deeply, and outrages us in ways we have trouble articulating.

At what or whom do you target your anger?  While I certainly can’t claim to speak for others in my field, after many years of being involved in yours, it strikes me that folks who do what you do and folks who do what I do view this issue through very different lenses.

From Afghanistan to Iraq to the Arab revolutions to haredim in Jalil and beyond, the 21st century has been hard on cultural heritage in that place called the “Middle East.”  There has emerged an extensive discourse regarding antiquities under threat to match that threat and perceptions of it.  Uproar over looting, anger over purposeful damage and defacement to antiquities, allegations of corruption, warnings about the sale of antiquities for funding terrorism, and perceptions of inability or unwillingness to care for Middle Eastern antiquities echo far and wide-from books to the press, from university classrooms to the Beltway, to professional conferences and private conversations had around the table during dig season.

Those of us who specialize in the modern history of your “oriental” and know well the history of your discipline see uncomfortable discursive parallels between our time and that of a century ago.  Your predecessors, the (mostly) white (mostly) grandfathers of your fields, both blatant and unwitting agents of colonialism among them, used similar vocabulary to talk about the threats to the objects of their efforts, just as they used science to create historicity out of antiquity for modern geopolitical aims, militarizing their projects when they thought necessary, legalizing their looting activities, justifying themselves the real heirs to what they carried away to national museums in imperial capitals.

Few archaeologists today would dare use the term “civilizing mission” in polite company.  Likewise, no Englishman would, like the Archbishop of York at the PEF’s inaugural meeting in 1865, declare to a room full of other Englishman that, “This country of Palestine belongs to you and me.  It is essentially ours”[3].  Yet it could be argued that not a small number of ASOR’s membership openly supports this sentiment today in their work (thus in their politics, and vice versa), albeit in a very different political context than that of late Ottoman Palestine in which the British worked.

Yet the rhetoric we’ve heard in recent years—about Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and so many other places—the need to protect this or that as the heritage of all man/humankind, of stepping forward to take one for the team and bear that responsibility, while perhaps sincere enough, is the modern corollary to the same kind of imperialist-speak that, in any other venue, we just wouldn’t accept anymore.  As a Mr. Thackeray Turner of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings pleaded with Lord Curzon (who charmingly referred to the situation in the post-World War I Balkans as the “unmixing of peoples”) out of concern for Aya Sofya in the negotiations leading up to Versailles, “In the event of the building remaining in the hands of the present owners my committee would ask your Lordship if it would be possible or even desirable to suggest to the Turkish Government that a building which is so much the centre of the history of the arts of Western civilisation might not be better repaired under the auspices of the best brains of that civilisation than by the respresentatives of one school of Thought only”[4].

A century later, how many partnerships, great and small, among academic, government, and private interests have materialized, offering another white man to the rescue?  How many archaeologists have been embedded with occupation forces in our foreign wars of choice?

Again I ask:  at what or whom do you target your outrage over the plight of cultural heritage?

It should come as no surprise by now that my outrage is reserved for the colonialism that so clearly defines our spatial-political and intellectual paradigms until this very day.  And the fact that archaeology is at its roots a colonial form of knowledge.  And that in the so-called Middle East, too many of its practitioners—particularly those who don’t hail from an anthropological background—have yet to come to terms with that fact.  Meanwhile, archaeologists who work in other contexts where the issues of what happened to First Nations or other subaltern peoples as a result of colonialism and its institutions in perpetuity (chattel slavery, reservations, Jim Crow, our contemporary prison-industrial complex, etc.) have had an impact on both theoretical and practical modes of archaeological inquiry.

Having spent as much of my adult life around the archaeology of the Middle East and archaeologists who specialize in it as I have, I know that most of you, the practitioners, have a very different answer.  And just as you are so varied in your particular specializations and methodologies, so are you varied in your politics.  It simply isn’t possible to separate the political you from the professional you.  And it is the manifestation of your outrage—public and private—to the plight of cultural heritage that gives your political self away every time.  This outrage tends to fall into a few broad categories:  1) the where-does-the-money-go lament; 2) a commentary on the ills of society; and 3) LOOTERS!!!

As to the first, I get it.  For those with active excavations, it’s beyond frustrating to devote a passionate life and hard-won funding to something year after year, and to see no results of the money that, often by law, is supposed to go into the conservation and protection of a site.  And for those of us who love to return to antiquities sites time and again, the increasing price of admissions rankles us.  For those who are savvy of these things, we wonder why so many cultural heritage initiatives such as those of USAID result in so little in the way of tangible product or development (And why we have cultural heritage in such a paradigm is its own issue!), while the foreigners who come to hit this country with aid money before running off to the next are so financially secure.

So I would argue this:  in many countries, including Jordan where I work, the budgetary system is designed such that money acquired due to cultural heritage, admission to antiquities sites, and the like isn’t necessarily available to its agencies that have a mandate to care for that cultural heritage.  So before lamenting the problem of such diminishing returns, it’s important to take that into account and include it in the critique, particularly if the country in which one works is, such as Jordan, a major recipient of foreign aid.  As for foreign aid, in many countries, if, for instance, USAID actually fixed something that was actually broken, then the foreigners and their local agents would shortly find themselves on the unemployment line, and without the benevolent giving of a few million dollars here or there (so little to the donor, so much for the recipient), the manipulation of geopolitics would be infinitely harder.

I personally have a harder time empathizing with the second and third manifestations of outrage—society’s ills and looting—especially as they are tied together.  And here’s why:  these sound like the sensitive answers that should affirm us all as the ethical, thinking people we like to believe that we are.  But they’re really not.  They’re the sloppy answers, the equivalent of sighing and throwing up our hands because there’s nothing we can really do about it so we don’t have to think too hard.  Thus, the typical narrative goes something like:  lack of resources, lack of education, lack of guards for antiquities sites, war, poverty…these create grave danger to cultural heritage (and that they first and foremost put people in grave danger should matter to us infinitely more).  And people who find themselves subject to living in such situations will “loot” because somewhere else there’s a market for it.  Shame on the market and the legal system that doesn’t do enough to control it; who can blame the poor?

This is an insidious narrative.  First of all, the looting-for-a-market dynamic rarely seems to translate into the broader critique that this is a contemporary manifestation paradigmatic of the colonialism that still characterizes our very modernity.  If there is a market for antiquities, does the line between private collectors (the bad guys in the narrative, enabled by defective legislation) and institutional collectors (museums, archaeologists, etc., usually the good guys in the narrative) matter if the value of antiquities and cultural heritage is still embedded in basic capitalism?  If one displays a “priceless collection” (But alas, it has a price, because insurers, lawyers, auction houses, etc. say so!) in one’s home or maintains and studies a “priceless collection” in a museum, we’re still talking about “priceless collections” that actually can be assigned real market value (Because alas, they do, in fact, have prices.).

Secondly, it reproduces a simplistic power narrative that gives all the agency to the market and its institutions while denying it to the actors in the supply chain of “looting”—the “looters,” the middle men, the people who move the “loot.”  Of course there are people who “loot” because they are poor and because there’s money in it.  But just because they are “poor” doesn’t mean they have no personal agency; on the contrary, they are taking advantage of a market, even if that market at its broadest level is obviously not one that favors them at all.  But not everyone in that supply chain is poor; nor does everyone who is poor and with access to antiquities engage in “looting.”  Developments and revelations regarding Egyptian antiquities over the past couple of years offer cases in point.  Those supply chains, moreover, are much more sophisticated and transnational than borders would dictate or possibly be able to control.  And again as has been so revelatory in the Egyptian case (but certainly not only the Egyptian case), while a lot of “looting” may go on underground, much of it goes on in broad daylight with elite sanction, masquerading as something legal and with many beneficiaries at various economic levels.

Finally, this widespread narrative in which poor people “loot” because they are poor denies agency to the other reasons why people “loot.”  It has been demonstrated that, in Palestine, for instance, there are people who “loot” as a form of resistance against an occupation that has in no small way been perpetuated by archaeology[5].  That those for whom such “looting” is resistance are really “looting” their own heritage is a moot point (and a topic for another blog post!):  for more than a hundred years now, they’ve been told that it’s not theirs, and on the basis of this narrative they have found themselves under continuous existential threat.  It has likewise been demonstrated that people “loot” as a past time:  it’s something they do with family and friends, and it provides not necessarily income, but building materials, interesting things for the home, and means of social interaction.

So as someone outside your discipline who knows something about your discipline but comes at it from a heterodox perspective, I’m troubled by and continue to try to understand your ongoing concern over “looting.”  For me it comes to this:  those of you who are archaeologists, your predecessors were the first “looters.”  They walked into a late Ottoman Empire they didn’t understand, but in their lack of understanding had a very self-interested purpose, and turned it into a paradigmatic landscape that made sense to them using something they called “science.”  That science was the work of army surveyors and learned men (and sometimes women).  And with that science they turned imagined spaces into real ones, taxonomized in non-native paradigms, creating what would become, after the Great War, the historicity of a nation-state system.  That system and the narratives that supported it—rooted in historicity from antiquity and contemporaneously in modern colonial strategy—have determined the course of events in the region where we all work ever since.

And as my own work (which considers perceptions of antiquity in Arab intellectual history) demonstrates, the diverse citizen-subjects of the late Ottoman Empire readily engaged with archaeology as they did with all other sciences.  But this taxonomic science perpetrated by your predecessors spoke different nuances of modern identity for Western audiences than it did for those who had more tangible connections to the land and its heritage—like living on it, for instance—and understanding it as a holistic, living landscape comprised of present and past and what today we would call “diversity” of both peoples and traditions.  This is an idea which, for instance, has taken widespread, material hold in North American archaeology.  Why hasn’t the same happened among so many of you who work in the Middle East?

Considering the ongoing conflict in Palestine, the Cold War, the age of neoliberalism, and the revolutions of the past two years (and, frankly and unfortunately, the reaction too many of you have had to them) does anyone really think we can or should take the “colonial” out of “post-colonial?”  Given the history of your discipline, which gave historicity to the contrived nation-state (in the framework of which we all work, and as a basis for practicing archaeology not a few of ASOR’s members have staunchly defended over the years), is anyone really in a position to criticize nationalist uses of archaeology that we don’t like, or say that one such use is better than another, or roll our collective eyes when confronted with another story about “Ottoman gold?”  Or after more than a century of telling people who live in this region what is theirs and what isn’t theirs and taking both away and doing with them as we see fit, is anyone in a position to complain that “they” don’t care about heritage or that “they” aren’t using it correctly?

While you, the practitioners, are adamant that your discipline is science far beyond the Bible, if its biblical roots remain the paradigmatic background of many of your specializations and of the configuration of modern nation-states, then your science is just as problematic now as a hundred years ago.  In the modern Middle East, that science aided in the denial of not only self-determined narrative, but self-determination to a lot of people.  At its worst, it helped to entirely disenfranchise them.

Along these lines, I want to conclude with a few related, but perhaps somewhat random thoughts for exploring these issues further:

  •  If you think that more recent traditions can tell us nothing of older traditions, if you think that al-Tabari, the scholar whose epic Arabic-language history from Creation to his own 9th/10th century can do nothing to enhance our understanding of Abrahamic traditions prior to Islam, then your intellectual world is all the poorer for it.  Much like the vocabulary of “looting” or “squatting,” in my field we don’t use such terms as “Judeo-Christian.”
  •  If you don’t understand Tawfiq Canaan’s early 20th century ethnographies of the people of Palestine and Petra, maybe that’s a greater indictment of disciplinary breadth and depth than it is of his scholarship and the milieu that informed it.
  •  To read further about any of these issues, you don’t even have to know the languages of the countries in which you work, as the scholarship and many of the primary sources are all accessible in English.  But if you don’t know the languages of the places where you work, you can’t possibly imagine how much you are missing.

We can’t all study everything, but while you, the archaeological practitioners, may specialize in what’s ancient, you are working in a modern context.  That’s an enormous responsibility, and it’s questionable whether your standards of training and professional development have kept pace.

When I get into these angry little conversations with people about cultural heritage—threats to it, the value of it, and the historical context in which I think we need to think about it—whether they empathize or not, the question is inevitably asked, “Well, what’s the solution?”  Honestly, I don’t know.  But I think that what would no doubt be a difficult dialogue between people who do what you do and people who do what I do might help.  If what happens today must be considered in the context of more than 200 years of holistic colonial damage, the solution is not an easy one.  Finding it begins with acknowledging those two centuries, and acknowledging that the greatest threat to cultural heritage began and continues to reside much closer to home.  The cringe-worthy “oriental” in ASOR should always be there to remind us of that.

Dr. Elena Corbett is the Resident Director of the CIEE Amman Study Center. She has taught courses in Middle East History, Islamic Civilization, and Arabic, at Penn State Erie and the U.S. Naval Academy. 


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[1] See Elena D. Corbett, “Jordan First:  A History of the Intellectual and Political Economy of Jordanian Antiquity” (Ph.D. Dissertation, The University of Chicago, 2009).  The book manuscript based on this dissertation is in progress.

[2] As for the lasting geopolitical effects of the Survey’s map, see the relevant discussions by Silberman and Abu el-Haj:  N. Silberman, Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799–1917 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), Nadia Abu el-Haj, Facts on the Ground:  Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[3] Report of the first PEF meeting at Willis’ Rooms, 22 June 1865.  Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement.  Pp. 3.  Also quoted in, John James Moscrop, Measuring Jerusalem:  The Palestine Exploration Fund and British Interests in the Holy Land (London: Leicester University Press, 2000).  Pp. 70.

[4] British Foreign Office documents.  FO608/82/3.  Turner to Curzon, 25/02/1919.

[5] See Morag Kersel, “License to Sell:  The Legal Trade of Antiquities in Israel” (Doctoral dissertation, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University, 2006).

10 thoughts on “Outrage and the Plight of Cultural Heritage: an Outsider’s Perspective

  1. For me it comes to this: those of you who are archaeologists, your predecessors were the first “looters.”

    -True, but those looters at least had an interest in interpreting their finds and viewing them as part of a broader historical framework, sometimes, recording and preserving those finds and, even rarer, doing so in their immediate context. The looters of today have no such concerns besides out-of-context preservation and, more often than not, just making a quick buck. At least Bliss and Petrie tried to taxonomize, however poorly, the finds they uncovered and attempted to learn from them.

    Considering the ongoing conflict in Palestine, the Cold War, the age of neoliberalism, and the revolutions of the past two years (and, frankly and unfortunately, the reaction too many of you have had to them) does anyone really think we can or should take the “colonial” out of “post-colonial?”

    -Why is there no mention of “post-Umayyad studies” in the scholarly literature? Why the sparse mention of “post-Roman studies”? After all, the vast majority of colonialist powers (Spain, Belgium, Germany, the UK, France, etc.) were significantly affected by the Roman empire, as was Palestine. Why does the author here focus chiefly on European colonialism, an institution which ended over half a century ago in the Middle East while lasting a length of time under a third of that of the Ottoman domination and leaving little, comparatively with Umayyad or Ottoman domination, in its wake? Colonialism is as dead as and as alive as the Empire of Rome or the Caliphates that once ruled Palestine.

  2. I have been conducting a research on Interpretation of archaeological heritage in Jordan, identity, approaches, meaning making process, the socio-cultural context, and I have to agree with almost everything in this article. And it is true that for 100 years people were told that this arcaheological heritage is not theirs. Ironicly, USAID and their agents are currently in charge of interpreting Jordan’s. archaeological sites to visitors, targeting mainly western visitors. I enjoyed reading this blog, and i think I will read it again :)

  3. As steeped as this author is in post-colonial rhetoric it seems only part of the issues pursuant to a holistic view has been expressed. Archeology is now surely a battleground for ideology by all ‘sides’ and the battle ground in all wars does suffer and rarely survives. ‘Looting’ or often enough desecration of cultural edifices or cultural witnesses is endemic as witness the Talibans destruction of the giant Buddhas or the Palestinians attempt to eradicate historical evidence in an attempt to deny israelite history as it often is an obstruction to polemic whether convenient or not. History is not convenient or simple to classify even within remote ideological epitaphs such as ‘historic materialism’ (remember that?). An ideological view of archeology as romantic must not throw the baby out with the bath water. We will be doomed to repeat a history we do not study as witness our current days.

  4. “Why does the author here focus chiefly on European colonialism, an institution which ended over half a century ago in the Middle East..”

    I believe I can answer that — because the people of the region are still living in the unnatural pseudo-states that colonial powers oh-so-benevolently set up for them. Since you seem fond of ancient analogies, perhaps the Hellenic kingdoms of Alexander’s successors would be a good match. Would you suggest that the kingdom of Pontus or Egypt of the Ptolemies could be effectively studied without understanding the origins and practices of their Hellenic monarchs, and their impact upon the people the region?

    Seems fairly obvious to me, but then I am just a musician. :-)

  5. Would you suggest that the kingdom of Pontus or Egypt of the Ptolemies could be effectively studied without understanding the origins and practices of their Hellenic monarchs, and their impact upon the people the region?

    Of course not. As I have said,

    Colonialism is as dead as and as alive as the Empire of Rome or the Caliphates that once ruled Palestine.

    Should anyone claim that finding a solution to the destruction of Levantine heritage begins with acknowledging “more than 200 years of holistic Roman damage” or “that the greatest threat to cultural heritage began and continues to reside much closer to Mecca”? I think not.

  6. Notwithstanding the damage to local culture certainly caused by the Roman occupation, one would have to point out that Rome and its successor states are long gone. The states that colonized the Middle East are for the most part still around. But far more importantly Arabs and Berbers and Kurds today live in states that were set up without their consent by those colonizing powers, who created each of them to be the petty oriental despotism that they imagined was the natural form of government for anyone unfortunate enough to be born in that part of the world.

  7. The states that colonized the Middle East are for the most part still around.

    And what makes the fact they are still around relevant to the matter of the preservation of heritage in the Middle East?

    But far more importantly Arabs and Berbers and Kurds today live in states that were set up without their consent by those colonizing powers, who created each of them to be the petty oriental despotism that they imagined was the natural form of government for anyone unfortunate enough to be born in that part of the world.

    -True. The Middle East has adopted many institutions from its past. I still don’t see how the two facts you mention connect with the matter of the preservation of heritage in the Middle East.

  8. They have to do with perception of ownership of antiquities. I thought that was clear, sorry — sometimes I type a bit faster than I think.

  9. With regards to the comments about Petrie the first commenter above made, it could also be said that Petrie monetized the act of digging because he paid his workers by the finds they made, not the day of work. A lot of people in the Middle East were introduced to the idea that an ancient pot had monetary value by Petrie.

  10. Very interesting discussion and comments, but I do wonder how many people who empower decision makers in a democracy “understand”, in any remote sense of the word, the issues that come into play when an archaeologist speaks of cultural heritage protection. I see very little difference between today’s archaeological sequestering of the past through self interest and the much maligned colonial attitudes of past and present. At the end of the day it’s all about power and control — not exactly a new phenomenon.

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