Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Current Affairs



I've spent quite a bit of time of late writing depressing blog posts about the fate of archaeological sites in the wake of conflict. From Syria, where Google Earth lets you track looting and a beautiful mosaic was blown up in the most recent fit of iconoclasm, to the Apollo of Gaza, smuggled in to a deeply troubled region and itself highly suspicious, I've been chasing objects and sites and getting steadily more miserable. I don't know how people like Dr Donna Yates and her colleagues do their valuable work on trafficking antiquities and destruction, but I bloody well admire them for doing it.

I spent a good chunk of the week before last researching the archaeology of the Crimea, in preparation for a potential new Andante tour on the "Empires of the Black Sea." Hours on Google Earth, scanning for burial mounds. Translating fractured GoogleTranslate into actual English to try and read the work of dedicated archaeologists who had mapped as many sites as they could, and shared the locations so the world could find them online. Delving into the depths of the Naval Museum at Balaklava, which looks like the ultimate James Bond villain lair. Even then, everyone at work had one eye on the news, and suspected that the tour might not be a viable idea. Now that the regime of Yanukovych has fallen at last, it seems as though it will be entirely impossible for years to come, while the latent tensions created in the wake of World War II bubble and curdle, leaving violence in their wake. Who knows what will happen to the archaeology itself, or to the people who so diligently created those digital records?

There are high points in all this doom and gloom, individual stories that catch the eye. My favourite is from Mali, a place that I have been fascinated by since childhood as a result of my dad's musical tastes. I had an interview to do a PhD focused on Ethnoarchaeology around Jenne, which I decided against in the end. This turned out to be a good decision, as I would have been smack in the middle of fieldwork when the Arab Spring set loose a vast supply of arms, sending them straight into the hands of the jihadists there. These extremists, after taking over Timbuktu, in addition to inflicting horrible sanctions on the inhabitants, posed a threat to the ancient manuscripts held in the city's venerable library. Through the actions of many brave people, including a band of fishermen and the library staff, the manuscripts were smuggled down the river to safety. The story is told far better here than I could tell it, but it's definitely a glimmer of positivity and hope.

I do wonder though, if it's wrong to care about artefacts- the pots and mosaics, the bits and bobs, the writings and mounds- when people are dying. The fate of the children of Syria is far more important than that of tesserae. That sounds horridly preachy, but it's the voice of guilt in the back of my head. Every time I'm upset about archaeology, that klaxon goes off. People, not pots, are the most important thing. But by that logic, looting and selling archaeological material to survive, to make money, to get on- isn't this just a way to feed families in a terrifying situation? How many looters are really doing it through desperation, and how can the middle-men and marketeers who make vast profits from their labour be brought to account? How can you implement community archaeology projects in the most vulnerable places, helping people and the past in one go, when the risks are so extreme?

There isn't really an answer, and this is a tangled, sad, mess of a blog post, for which I'm sorry. Still, any thoughts or comments very much welcomed.

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