Thursday, 14 June 2012

The unbearable lightness of archaeology

No matter how interesting archaeology is and how intellectually rewarding it can be, sometimes real world seems to catch with it and deem it less worthy when weighted against the events in the real world. Lately, a few discussions I have had over a cup of tea have involved meditations on the situation in Syria and a selection of pretty pessimistic predictions of the possible outcomes. Even if I only ended up working there for one season, I could see how exceptional history the country has and how versatile its communities could be. Now I can watch the TV news only with a deep feeling of sorrow.

When I have discussed with people who have been working in the Middle East for decades and have long working relationships with local archaeologists, museum professionals and workmen, I can only guess how they feel at the moment. If seeing sectarian violence raising its head and another country being ‘iraqified’ is heartbreaking for me, I can only guess how those experienced archaeologists must be feeling. The government in Syria did not bring freedom of speech to the masses or freely elected leaders but it had created a country where the Sunni, the Christians, the Shia, the Jewish and the Alawites were living peacefully in a lay country. No matter how the situation will pan out now, the relationships between different communities will not be trusting or carefree any more. Some groups already have blood in their hands.

The unstable political situations bring stop to foreign expeditions in different volatile countries. Anybody who was as blue-eyed as to have wished that the Bush family’s long-term project in Iraq would open the country’s fabulous archaeology to the scholars could have not been more wrong. The collections were trashed, the sites flamethrewn and different buildings bombed or blown out. Nothing makes an easier target in a dangerous country than a locally well-known and instantly recognizable foreign archaeological team. I have heard of a few teams in different countries who have lied low for some time when drug traffickers or other dangerous groups had visited an area.

In a country such as Syria were a huge amount of sites – including Ugarit, Palmyra, Tell Braq or Crac des Chevaliers among many others – has value for world history any conflict can have far reaching consequences for archaeology and museum collections. Naturally, the discontinuation of research projects is a blow to the individual careers of highly competitive archaeologists. However, ethically, these losses have to be considered, even if enormous in the case of world heritage, to be of lesser importance than a potential loss of human life and the potential tragedy of losing one more country to the dark depths of civil war and carnage. Europe itself has been unable to avoid bloody ethnic wars and atrocities in the 1990s so how could the area as volatile as the Near East.

From the beach

We did work next to a beach site with party boats, countless chalets, a long row of souvenir shops and people happily having their day by the sea. The site was used by local tourists but it may be eerily quiet today. One could see Turkey from the beach, and a number of Christian villages are located in the area. The area is relatively near of some of the northern trouble spots but should be peaceful at the moment. If only the worst could be avoided and not only the archaeology but all the citizens and communities could be safeguarded.

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