Archaeology, Heritage and International Conflict

Archaeology goes beyond the mere study of the past through what remains of the past materially, but it also shapes how individuals and nations may see themselves in the modern age.

European and American museums are confronted by requests of the return of artifacts bought or seized by colonial powers: Greece Presses for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles to where they belong: Athens Acropolis.

Researchers still looking for the Amber Room, Tsarist treasure allegedly stolen by the Nazi occupation forces and presumably destroyed or still hidden somewhere in Germany.

In 2008 a scandal hit the world of archaeology in Spain as it was reported that supposedly ancient artifacts were faked. In time the scandal became connected to the attempts to strengthen a real or imaginary Basque nationalist past. This episode in Spanish archaeology history is a modern example of how archaeology has played a role in shaping modern national identities and the creation of national myths.[1] In the Spanish case, Basque nationalism rooted in a very ancient language was one of the sources of conflict in 20th century Spain. It contributed to fueling the Spanish civil war in the 1930s and terrorism in Spain after the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to a modern democracy. Only in 2017 ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – Basque Country and Freedom)[2] finally stopped fighting the Spanish state. Paradoxically, the end of this violent Basque separatism was followed in Spain by a Catalan separatism and the attempt of some Catalan parties to declare independence by arguing for a separate identity that set apart the Catalonian region linguistically and culturally from mainstream Spanish history.

The archaeological background to modern nationalism and conflicts is not new. In fact, in the earlier part of the 19th century the Greeks, with great European support and sympathy, fought against the Ottoman Empire for a political and cultural independence that was stimulated by a connection to Classical Greece and of course the Byzantine Empire. By 1870, the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann had begun discovering Homer’s Troy. His findings and the discovery of artifacts connected to ancient Greece stimulated enthusiastic interest in the near-Eastern archaeological and historical heritage.[3][4] Streams of archaeological discoveries reshaped a new Hellenic identity that shaped Greek politics and the conflicts with the Ottoman Empire, conflicts that saw the catastrophic Greek-Turkish war of 1922 and decades later the conflict in Cyprus between the Greek majority and the Turkish minority.

In Cyprus, the destruction of Greek archaeological sites was one of the subjects of the Greek-Cypriot political stance against the occupation of northern Cyprus by thousands of Turkish soldiers following the 1974 invasion of the island, when Turkey claimed it was protecting the rights of the Turkish-speaking minority.[5] The invasion followed years of conflict in Cyprus, ruled for decades by the British from 1878 until 1960[6]. The ethnic conflict was resolved through a compromise where the Greek-Cypriot desire to be reunited with Greece was set aside by giving independence to the island along with a constitutional compromise between the two ethno-linguistic groups.

Modern archaeology and the new scientific disciplines associated with it have now come to create greater knowledge and insight into the past of many regions across the globe.  They have also fueled value systems and political ideologies that have now come to spread increasingly across regions and nations, serving to bolster the perennial search for power and meaning in an international system tied by new economic realities and social mobility that challenges older historical and religious traditions. Some intellectuals and critics have used the encounter of the West with the non-traditional world, especially Islamic in the Middle East, as an example of cultural colonialism above and beyond political and economic imperialism. A classic case of the debate on the subject was the systematic work of Edward Said who wrote extensively criticizing western scholarship as being unable to truly understand the East – especially the Middle East – in his work Orientalism. His approach was very influential in the academic world, and continues being so, though his understanding of the Western-European insights into the Middle East especially are methodologically unsound and ideologically biased.[7]

Thus, archaeology comes to have even greater relevance in the reformulation of many aspects of international relations and ideological and civilizational clashes.  It then becomes even more incumbent on academics at large, especially historians, archaeologists, and ethno-linguists to dispel whenever possible the constant mythologizing and distortion of historical and archaeological scholarship.[8] The Americas were not exempt from these trends.

Across the Atlantic the mystification of new archaeological and linguistic discoveries became a systematic component of local nationalism, particularly when studying pre-Columbian civilizations in Central and South American states and Native American tribes in the United States and Canada. In Mexico, the Aztec heritage boosted Indianismo, which came to be one of the pillars of the new regime in Mexico after the epic of revolution that shaped a new Mexico after 1912.  From the 1920s onwards, the official historiography of Mexico emphasized Aztec civilization which had been systematically studied since the 19th century by Western archaeologists and denounced the Spanish conquest as an assault on some past noble human experiment.  The reformulation of a new Mexican identity saw even a revival of attempts to remove the bones of Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who had been entombed in Mexico City. By 2020, the Mexican government, run by a progressive leftist president was seeking official apologies from Spain for the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire, and for the violence involved in the establishment of Spanish cultural hegemony in Mexico.[9]

The reinterpretation of the past by now had come to see in both North and South America the denunciation of Columbus and the arrival of the Europeans. In some respects, it was a reassertion of the Rousseauian paradigm of the Noble Savage being overwhelmed by civilization. In fact, the reaffirmation of aboriginal rights in North, South, and Central America from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia, in claims to land and resources came to be often articulated through archaeological discoveries and the assertion of the parity of native languages with Spanish as in Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, or Guatemala.

Even in Europe, the creation of a pan-European identity seemed to have enhanced the reaffirmation of ethno-linguistic ideologies rooted in mythical pasts given some superficial credibility by archaeology and linguistics. Examples range from the Dardanian movement in the Balkans following the independence of Kosovo as Albanians and Kosovars reiterated their European roots by linking to classical Greek history and mythology, including the destruction of Serbian Orthodox religious sites to the revival of Celtic religions and outright paganism professing a return to animism and Norse religions in Scandinavia. In the United States within the last generation there has been a revitalization of Neo-Pagan religion and witchcraft, ranging from the Church of Satan as an established institution to Wicca as a legitimate religious experience.[10] New political movements, ranging from neo-Scandinavian nationalism to neo-Nazism have connected their political ideology to Old Norse religious mythologies.[11]

These new phenomena tended to have a more strictly sociological significance and had yet to develop a political relevance. The age of instant electronic communication lent itself to the mystification of archaeology, ethnography, and linguistics from Europe and North America to the rest of the globe.  Fueled by misperceived scientific and academic research, science fiction, UFO sightings, political propaganda, mysticism, religion, eschatology, and catastrophism gave rise to a vast body of literature, movies, and internet-propagated debate and speculations grounded in the outright mystification of science and racialism intensifying and legitimizing national conflicts and political violence.

Their interpretation of the past through archaeological discoveries and political influence in terms of modern ideological postures characterizes every area of the world, ranging from Latin America to Australia and Africa. [12] European and American museums came to be confronted by requests of the return of artifacts bought or seized by colonial powers. The British museum, for example, was going to return the Benin bronzes to Nigeria.[13] The bronzes had been seized by British troops in 1897 during the British conquest of Benin. Benin today is in modern Nigeria, and part of the federal state.

The Greek Cause for the Parthenon Marbles Return to Athens

In modern Europe one of the more chronic problems in archaeological politics is the pressing demand of the Greek state for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, from the British Museum to Athens. The Marbles were part of the façade of the Acropolis of Athens and were allegedly purchased by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1807. The issue came up again following Brexit, as the Greek government pressed once again for the return of the Elgin Marbles.[14] The subject became part of the diplomatic bargaining between the United Kingdom and Brussels over the future of the political relationship between the European Union and London. The controversy has been going on for decades. In the same vein, stolen art from Italy is a subject of Italian international requests for return of what it considers to be Italian cultural patrimony.[15]

Last but not least, the Nazi German state’s looting of European art all over the occupied areas during World War II still stands out as an example of the role of war in the displacement of national art and culture. Researchers are still looking for the Amber Room, a Tsarist treasure allegedly stolen by the Nazi occupation forces and presumably destroyed or still hidden somewhere in Germany.[16]

Thus, one may conclude here by saying that symbolically archaeology goes beyond the mere study of the past through what remains of the past materially, but it also shapes how individuals and nations may see themselves in the modern age. As archaeological explorations expand, inevitably the reinterpretation of the past also takes place. This is especially relevant in the Middle East, which by many standards, is the birthplace of civilization. Arguably, the most important dimension of this past is a religious experience that has characterized the Middle East ever since the birth and evolution of Judaism, the rise of Christianity and the shaping of monotheistic belief systems.

Modern Re-Elaboration of Jewish Identity Through Rise of Zionism

Perhaps the most outstanding example is the modern re-elaboration of a Jewish identity through the rise of modern Zionism in 19th century Europe and the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1947. In the 2nd century AD, the Romans wiped out what had been a Jewish ethno-religious state in Judea along with the destruction of what had originally been the Temple of Solomon in 70 AD. Judea became a Roman province and hundreds of thousands of Jews were enslaved and deported throughout the Roman Empire, though the territory still held a considerable population of Jews.

Some decades later, in 132 AD the Jews rebelled again. This revolt saw Emperor Hadrian raze Jerusalem and rename it Aelia Capitolina. To add insult to injury, Judea came to be renamed Palestina with a reference to one of the peoples in the area, the Philistines mentioned in the Bible. From then to modern times, Palestine was a common name for a territory that eventually became the state of Israel and came to be seen by Jews scattered across the world as a land to return to with the coming of the Messiah. Herein lies an added Christian dimension to the religious and cultural relevance of the Jewish historical linkage to a lost state, to be restored with, by a coming Messiah for Jews and the second coming of Christ for all Christian denominations.

The rise of Islam in the 7th century and the conquest of Jerusalem by the Muslims in southern Arabia added a third monotheistic appeal to the city of Jerusalem which came to have historical and cultural consequences for centuries for the people of the region, Europe, and in time for international relations from the 19th century onwards. By the 18th century, there was already a historical and archaeological interest in the Middle East and the biblical connection was the most relevant aspect of it. In the development of modern states in the Middle East, whether Turkey, Iran, Egypt, or as a matter of fact anywhere else in the world, reconstructing the past through archaeology and other disciplines such as linguistics was not a new phenomenon, and continues to be ever more relevant. Paradoxically, in an ever more globalized world, national identity becomes ever more relevant for domestic political purposes. The reconstruction of the past through archaeology to enhance modern national identity becomes ever more interesting in terms of ideological, economic, and international premises. Thus, tourism, education, propaganda, articulated through mass and social media come to stand out and add to an even greater dimension to the models developed in the theories of international relations and conflict.

[1] Ashley Cowie, “Archaeologist Busted for Faking Artifacts Showing Jesus Crucifixion,” in Ancient Origins, 8 February 2020.

[2] Claude Canellas, Sonya Dowsett, and Isla Binnie, “Basque militants ETA surrender arms in end to decades of conflict” Reuters, April 2017.

[3] Caroline Moorehead, Priam’s Gold: Schliemann and the Lost Treasure of Troy (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016).

[4] Robert Payne, The Gold of Troy: The Story of Heinrich Schliemann and the Buried Cities of Ancient Greece (Dorset: Dorset Press, 1990).

[5] Lefkios Zaphiriou, Costas Nicolaides, Miltos Miltiadou, Marianna Mammidou, Van Coufoudakis, “The Loss of a Civilization; Destruction of cultural heritage in occupied Cyprus” Government of Cyprus, 2012.

[6] For a Turkish perspective, see Ozmatyatli, I. O. & Ozkul, A. E. “20th Century British Colonialism in Cyprus

through Education.” (Egitim Arastirmalari-Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, 50, 1-20. 2013).

[7] Morris Mottale, “Book Review: Orientalism and Islam: European Thinkers on Oriental Despotism in the Middle East and India.” (Canadian Political Science Association, 2010).

[8] See Also: The MESA Debate, 22 November 1986. Cf: Robert D. Kaplan, “Remembering Elie Kedourie: How One Analyst Spoke Truth to Power in the Middle East.” (The National Interest, 25 April 2020)

[9] “Mexico demands apology from Spain and the Vatican over conquest.” (BBC, 26 March 2019). See Also, Renzo Pipoli “Spain denies Mexico apology over 1521 Spanish conquest.” (UPI, 26 March 2019)

[10] See for example Jessica Bennet “When Did Everybody Become a Witch?” (New York Times, 24 October 2019). See also; David Brooks “Commentary: Witchcraft enjoying a surge in popularity” (New York Times, 13 June 2019).

[11] Samuel Sigal “What To Do When Racists Try To Hijack Your Religion” (The Atlantic, November 2, 2017).

[12] Paul Daley “There’s a new push for the return of looted Aboriginal artefacts – in the name of ‘truth telling’.” (The Guardian, 1 December 2019). See Also; Geoff Gray “A Cautious Silence: The politics of Australian anthropology”. (Aboriginal Studies Press: August 1, 2007)

[13] Kieron Monks “British Museum to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria.” (CNN, 14 December 2018). See also: “The British Conquest of Benin and the Oba’s Return”, Art Institute of Chicago (2013).

[14] Ian Wishart “EU Brings Greek Demand for Elgin Marbles Into Brexit Talks.” (MSN, 19 February 2020).

[15] See for Example “Italian Court Orders Getty Museum To Return Statue To Italy”. (NPR, 5 December 2018).

[16] “Amber Room: Priceless Russian treasure stolen by Nazis ‘discovered by German researchers’” (The Independent, 19 October 2017).