On 21 November, we organized the round-table seminar Cultural heritage in conflicts and politics – Ethical dilemmas for archaeologists at the University of Bergen (Norway).
The seminar was a response to how the cultural heritage in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East has been exposed during the last few years to the ramifications of several crises that we are very concerned about.
Unfortunately, since we started planning the seminar in summer, the bad situation for the cultural heritage in the region only escalated with the destruction of Palmyra and the news that Saudi Arabia will fund more dams on the Nile in Sudan. So the need that we had identified for creating fora of dialogue and involvement only increased. At the same time, it is urgent to find concrete solutions for the on-the-ground problems that archaeologists working in these regions face. These were phrased in the call for the seminar in the form of a couple of questions: How can archaeologists promote and safe-guard the cultural heritage without appearing as professionals caring more about the dead and the ruins, and not about the human tragedies that are unfolding in these places? Conversely, can archaeology and archaeologists be a positive force of change?
The seminar was in fact planned in pair with a lecture by professor Yannis Hamilakis with the title: Some debts are never repaid – Antiquity, archaeology and the crisis. This talk was hosted by the Research Group on the Ancient World at the University of Bergen and took place in the evening of 20 November. The presence of such an important figure of the archaeopolitics’ debate in Bergen was an excellent opportunity to invite him also as commentator on the presentations in the seminar of Saturday.
We had a varied program with seven presentations and engaging discussions. Here we briefly summarize the presentations.
Tsakos acted as host for the venue and moderator of the discussion. In the introduction, he referred to two ethical dilemmas from his own field of research – medieval manuscripts from Sudan. The first dilemma touched the thorny issues of the study and publication of unprovenanced manuscript collections, and the second dilemma concerned the controversial source of funding for archaeological projects in Sudan – the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project (QSAP). Qatar has earned its riches from oil exporting revenues, and while its own citizens enjoy a high standard of welfare, the treatment of migrant workers are regularly criticized by human rights groups – particularly in connection with the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In this connection, Tsakos referred to a fresh article by Hamilakis, Parallel Lives of Archaeology and the Logic of Capital, whereby the “sponsorship deals that archaeologists and museum professionals now forge with major corporations, some with unpalatable and dubious environmental and human rights record” are questioned.
Ghattas presented a paper titled Palestinian cultural heritage between political conflict and ethical matters. His main point was that the cultural heritage in Palestine is being destroyed by looting and sales of looted artefacts through the legal and illegal antiquities’ markets. The causes for looting are complex, e.g. different laws operating in Palestinian and Israeli controlled territories, as well as poor people’s need for cash incomes. Ghattas argued that archaeologists working in the area should take action in order to prevent further looting by increasing awareness, undertaking community-based education, and establishing dialogues with local inhabitants and governments.
Anfinset discussed Archaeological examples and reflections on ethical dilemmas working in conflict regions by using his experience from research in Palestine and Syria. He emphasized that one reason that cultural heritage is so important is because it is deeply connected with feelings, and he stressed that managing the cultural heritage will only be successful if the local communities are included. Anfinset also described the ethical dilemmas of making site coordinates available in databases such as Endangered archaeology in the Middle East and Northeast Africa, since the information that will be used with good intentions to protect and monitor the sites can be misused as a treasure-hunting map if they fall in the wrong hands.
From Syria and Palestine, the focus shifted to Afghanistan with the presentation in absentia of Christophersen’s paper Report from the field: Archaeology and politics in the land of Taliban. The excavations of the sites at Mez Aynak – threatened by a Chinese copper mining project – was used as a case for problematizing the ethical dilemmas of doing archaeological fieldwork in a war zone. Not only were the archaeologists working under armed protection, but it was not possible to guarantee a secure storing place for the archaeological artefacts uncovered in the excavations. Christophersen’s presentation concluded with a promotion of a documentary film about the attempts to save the archaeological site of Mez Aynak, which can be seen here!
Hafsaas-Tsakos talked about Dam building, archaeologists and activism: Comparing cases from Sudan, Turkey and Albania. She argued that large dams for hydropower generation are controversial development projects, since they cause irreversible changes in the natural environment, force local people off their land when it is flooded, and drown cultural landscapes and heritage sites. Furthermore, many rivers where major dam projects are implemented cross national borders, and water conflicts can destabilize entire regions. The most important case-study of Hafsaas-Tsakos’ presentation was the building of the controversial Merowe Dam in Sudan, which she has previously discussed in the article Ethical implications of salvage archaeology and dam building. She informed the participants that the Nile in Sudan is threatened by the building of three more dams, while destructive dams are also planned on numerous free-flowing rivers in the Balkans, such as Vjosa in Albania, stressing the necessity to see the dams’ issue globally. Hafsaas-Tsakos had drawn new inspiration for the discussion of the ethical dilemmas from Hamilakis’ article The War on Terror and the Military-Archaeology Complex: Iraq, Ethics, and Neo-Colonialism (2009).
Hesjedal’s presentation titled War, cold war, forced displacement and the ambiguity of landscape: A case from the county of Troms, Norway brought the discussions to the north. He is part of a project that documents the 20th century military landscape in the Lyngen area. Towards the end of the WWII, the Germans retreated from the northeastern part of Norway. 220 000 German soldiers and an unknown number of Soviet prisoners of war worked during the winter of 1944 to establish a new land defense line in Troms. This left numerous traces in the landscape, and the militarization of the landscape was further accentuated by the use of the same area as a defense line in a possible conflict with the Soviet Union during the cold war. Hesjedal demonstrated how this pristine mountain landscape has become dotted by material remains from occupation, terror and war crimes during WWII as well as the ambiguity of the Norwegian defense line during the cold war. Of particular interest for our seminar was the information that the material remains from these defense lines are not (yet) protected by the law of cultural heritage in Norway. More photos and information (in Norwegian) about this project can be found here!
Paludan-Müller made a thought-provoking contribution on Cultural heritage in conflict. He has worked on the topic for a number of years, and the most recent initiative was a conference on how to prevent the looting of Syria’s cultural heritage that took place in Sofia in September this year. The presentation in Bergen, however, focused on the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research‘s efforts together with the Worlds Monument Fund for establishing collaboration between Armenian, Turkish and international researchers in order to highlight the common history of the region before the fatal events during WWI. A joint workshop was organized in 2013 under the title Ani in Context. Ani is a ruined Armenian city from the medieval period that is now situated in the Kars province in Turkey, but very close to the border with Armenia. The aim was to conduct a site survey in the region, assess the endangered monuments, and promote the potential benefits that the local communities can gain by preserving their heritage. Paludan-Müller also discussed factors that threatens the cultural heritage in the Middle East more generally.
The final presentation by Angeletaki discussed what we can do for Documenting the loss. As an archaeologist now working as a research librarian at NTNU, she is involved in several projects that concerns digital humanities. Some of these are directly linked to the cultural heritage in conflicts in the Middle East, such as CyArk. CyArk is an international non-profit organization with the mission of creating a free, 3D online library of the world’s cultural heritage sites before they are lost to natural disasters, destroyed in development projects and wars, or ravaged by the passage of time. She furthermore expressed concerns that so few archaeologists are involved in debates about endangered heritage.
Each presentation was followed by engaged discussions by the participants and Yannis Hamilakis, who stressed in his concluding remarks the importance of always bringing to the fore the burning topics that we had to share during the seminar. We hope that our meeting in Bergen will find a continuation in another venue in Norway or abroad. An interesting proposal was to participate in some of the sessions on Archaeological ethics in the coming World Archaeology Congress in Kyoto, Japan.
From our side, we would like to thank all the participants for an inspiring exchange of experiences and ideas!