Decolonizing archaeology

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Does it, though?

*Sorry for any confusion caused by the UK links in this post.

This past Saturday I attended Islamic Archaeology Day at University College London, a really exciting event of speakers discussing their recent archaeological research on medieval Islamic societies around the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean. And while I found the conference engaging – it actually gave me some ideas for avenues to explore my copper research further – I noticed a, shall we say, problematic theme: only the people in the room are qualified to recognize what culture is worth preserving, and isn’t it a shame that the locals don’t know what they’ve got?

This attitude first appeared as a benign, knowing sigh from the audience when one speaker brought up the topic of looting – that is, when non-archaeologists dig intentionally though indiscriminately through sites looking for artifacts to sell. But then it came up again when another speaker bemoaned the loss of already excavated sites to rising sea levels. And then again when a third speaker noted in passing that the locals near his site couldn’t care less about their cultural heritage because they were too interested in commercial farming.

I mentioned to my dad the other day that there isn’t a lot of archaeology in Africa because archaeology as a subset or perhaps device of anthropology has historically been used as a tool of imperialism, either to show that a currently dominant culture has always been dominant, or to show that a currently subjugated culture has never been worth anything. Since Africa has been colonized by nearly every country in western Europe and the US, only that recent history of subjugation mattered to the people with money, and if they had gone back to the era just before the Atlantic slave trade, they would have found the complicating fact that African societies were some of the wealthiest and most powerful cultures of the Middle Ages.

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Mansa Musa on his throne of gold. Catalan Atlas, 1375.

In the present climate of cultural understanding and promotion of agency, we think that everyone should have a history to look back on, that people in the present gain power through their memories. But for countries that are historically third world – and I mean this in the true sense that they were sites of conflict, occupation, or influence during the Cold War – it is neither financially sensible for them to build up a cultural heritage nor is it within their image of themselves as a modern country. A huge element of Orientalism – the Western perspective that cultures within a broadly imagined Asia are rich in resources but poor in civilization – is the image of these people and their homes as timeless. We still think this way when we talk about “traditional” societies or a place having “wisdom” – we imagine ,when we say these things, that these people or places somehow have access to a simpler yet more profound past that we can access through them. When we insist that a country maintain its cultural heritage, part of what we are saying is that we need them to continue to remind us of their past, because that is how we see them – in the past.

This insistence on cultural heritage is the next step from most of the 20th century, when first world countries (yes, the Cold War is very relevant to this) were insisting that the historical artifacts they had removed from third world countries were more properly theirs because the countries of origin weren’t equipped to properly care for them. We can see the recent settlement of the case over the Machu Picchu artifacts as the soft end of this era – when an institution as paternalistic as Yale University recognizes that it is not, in fact, a greater authority on the significance of Machu Picchu than the country of Peru, you know there’s been a sea change in the culture of paternalism. But the core of this paternalistic impulse is still present, and it’s shifting to adapt to a world in which previously colonized countries are now very aware of their place and how they have been taken advantage of in the past. It’s not enough now to have laws protecting cultural patrimony – that is, the standard of who owns old objects that were found in a given country, either the people who found the objects or the country itself.

Now some countries are recognizing that it’s not worthwhile for them to invest in their cultural heritage, which is why the archaeological teams digging these places are based in European universities. Not only do these renovated sites give the impression that the country is stuck in the past, but the digs and the museums are expensive to maintain. In a capitalist sense, the only reason that these ventures are worth the cost is the revenue from tourism. Now, that’s fine for places like Greece and Italy, (and even North Africa and India, thanks to their colonial pasts) which are accessible to other people from the first world, i.e. the tourists. But Central Asia is a hard sell as a vacation spot, since it has that reputation for, you know, war (thanks, America).

And locales that are typically known as beach destinations have a hard time convincing tourists to stop tanning and do some thinking. Especially because those tourists have probably never thought about the fact that these places have a history and so any new information becomes intellectually inaccessible to them. If, as an American, you have ever visited Puerto Rico and done a tour of “the Historical City of San Juan” you may have found that even that history was very light on information about people who were not descended from Europeans. Cultural biases play a huge part in further stifling the dissemination of history – the fact is that Americans don’t think well of Spanish speakers as it is, and are totally confused by and probably a little scared of Native Americans, natives of the Caribbean, and peoples of African descent. It’s an uphill battle for these places to try to convince tourists to care about their history, when they don’t care about their present. So, harkening back to one of the comments from Islamic Archaeology Day, it makes sense for modern peoples of the Central Asian Steppe to prioritize commercial farming over cultural heritage, because one is in service to them and their present, while the other only serves the people who have been stepping on their faces for the last century.

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What I’m saying is abhorrent as an archaeologist (or material culture historian, whatever). We, as a group, believe that the stuff of history is foundational to our identities and that without it we are missing a part of ourselves. But we believe that because we have the privilege to exist in both the present and the past. Whereas we have forced many other peoples to live either only in the present, as slaves, or only in the past, as colonial subjects. We can’t now insist that the descendants of these groups start back at square one and uncover their pasts or build a present when they would prefer to just change the rules of the game.

I still think archaeology is important. But not for itself – archaeology and artifacts have no inherent value. This is something that people really miss. When archaeologists find a shipwreck, the gold coins inside it aren’t valuable because they are made of gold, but because they provide information about the past that we care about in the present. So it makes no sense to insist that a country or a region maintain an interest in a past that means nothing to their culture now. That past, and the objects that represent it, have no value to them. They have value to us, the archaeologists, who have the luxury to pontificate about history.

But the history that we most often use these objects to tell is also an inherently flawed narrative. Archaeology as it is most often practiced reinforces a Clash of Civilizations view of the past, because archaeologists and art historians are often very concerned with categorizing objects based on what culture or what time period they came from. So, if you keep digging deeper in a site and you find that the objects there switch from looking like objects you might typically find to the west of the site to objects you might typically find to the east, conventional wisdom tells you to draw the conclusion that this site was previously under the control or influence of the people from the east, but then came under the control or influence of the people from the west. But what if it’s neither? What if the existence of those styles in two different places is coincidental? What if the two places were in contact but completely equal? What if the two places didn’t think of themselves as two places at all and you’ve drawn an arbitrary boundary between them? This view of history, that imagines only discrete borders in competition with one another, is a distillate of both capitalist and imperialist ideologies, which imagine the world in terms of monetary value and direct, zero-sum competition. But that is a modern perspective. It is a Cold War perspective, that carved up the world in Ours and Theirs. It is a perspective that fueled slavery and both world wars and blind Nationalism. So why would we continue that perspective when we are trying to move away from all of those things?

This is what continues to draw me to Mediterranean history. Because even though the Mediterranean is one of the oldest sites of recorded imperial conflict, it is also extremely hard to categorize. People, culture, goods, crafts – they all tend to blur together around that ocean, so it’s hard to definitively distinguish one culture’s output from another. This is something that came up throughout Islamic Archaeology Day. Islam gained cultural hegemony in the Mediterranean as one of several successor cultures to the Roman Empire, and so at various points it’s pretty hard to say that a building or a piece of art is “Islamic”. In fact, that designation is nonsense. Objects don’t have religion – they don’t have souls or agency of belief – they’re just things that we make or use, and sometimes we do so for religious purposes and sometimes we do so for totally mundane purposes. So, an Islamic house in the 7th century looks an awful lot like a Christian house. And wouldn’t you know? A mosque in that time is almost indistinguishable from a church – even the architectural features that are supposed to differentiate them don’t always. And it’s not just when Islam was forming. Norman Sicily, most of Spain before the 15th century – these places have a material culture that doesn’t fit in a neat box except to say that they are Mediterranean and medieval. I study the medieval Mediterranean in part because I want to confuse people with the lack of categorization, to shake them out of their colonized brains and consider both time and space as continuums. In a perfect world, all culture is human culture, and everyone cares about everyone’s history because we are all people. But in 2019 we have a very hard time thinking that way.

So, when we talk about how important archaeology and cultural heritage are, we need to take a step back, and consider why we think they’re so important. Whether we are using these objects to distract from modern conflict or to replace a real infrastructure or economy. And we need to consider the concept of ownership – who has the right to say whether an object even gets dug up in the first place? Ultimately, we need to consider what we’re using this knowledge for – to bolster human culture, or to contribute to a narrative of domination?