The Search Goes on, but…

Lord knows that authenticity in cultural heritage  is a tricky– and sometimes even impossible– concept.   Some seek to exploit it for purely economic value.  Others seek to insulate it from any commercial entanglements at all.  Yet whatever the extremes, authenticity in some form is valuable.  It is a quality that everyone seeks.

Step right up, folks! Authenticity on display...

Step right up, folks! Authenticity on display…

In this blog I continue to share cases where dubious claims of the authenticity of ancient objects and historical places have been cynically exploited to make money–and where militant (often-ethnically or nationalistically narcissistic) claims to authenticity have proved handy in showing that their rivals’ assertions of authenticity are lies.

But there has to be a happy medium– a quality that we can begin to put our finger on– that reflects the resonance of certain objects and landscapes to certain people and is considered by them to be something with authenticity.  What’s needed the most today is a new people-sided view of the authenticity conundrum.  One that recognizes that authenticity, like beauty, often lies in the eye of the beholder.  It is not inherent in the place or object but rather evokes a feeling of continuity and familiarity with the values  something that evokes a deep emotional connection and response.

Where and how to redefine authenticity that way is a tremendous challenge.  So together with my colleagues at Coherit Associates, we have started a new blog Discovering Authenticity that takes up where this one leaves off.

Hope to see you there too…

 

Nazis, the Holocaust, and Archaeology as Reality TV

It’s ironic that while the new National Geographic reality TV show “Nazi War Diggers” has evoked howls of outrage from archaeologists all over the world for its happy-go-lucky desecration of human remains for tabloid documentary entertainment, the new Smithsonian show “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” has received interest, fairly positive reviews, and widespread (if ghoulish) curiosity.

Actually there is a lot more that links these two shows than distinguishes them.  They are both clear signs of how reality TV is transforming World War II and the Nazis into seductively entertaining documentary fare, rather than history that we really have to take seriously. Not only that.  Archaeology no longer plays the role of the handmaiden of history; it has become reality TV’s whore. Young people digging for the unexpected treasures can be quite photogenic and it’s fairly easy to turn into a narrative with breathless, cliffhanging teasers to keep us tuned in across the commercials.  Like so many “Secrets of the Bible” documentaries, archaeology has allowed itself to become a new medium of video trivialization.  Or in these cases, a medium for the banalization –or even outright denial– of the horrors of the Holocaust and the battles on the Eastern front.

"Nazi War Diggers" - National Geographic Channel

“Nazi War Diggers” – National Geographic Channel

What are the main objections to Nazi War Diggers?  Well, mostly disrespectful handling of human remains and poor archaeological technique.  The first objection is due to the positive influence of the passionate and effective ethical movement of indigenous peoples all over the world to stop the archaeological collection (or sometimes even discarding) of human skeletal remains as just things. There are many complex issues to be settled of course, especially in regard to ancient, unclaimed, or non-indigenous (if such a term can be used) human remains unearthed in excavations, but Nazi diggers, with its gleeful display of femurs and skulls as alongside the holsters, guns, and other military paraphernalia is just grotesque treasure hunting.  Its airing on the National Geographic Channel is a disgraceful blot on the NG brand, which anyway has sold away its reputation along with the management of the channel to the Rupert Murdoch empire.  What else do you expect when you sell your brand to the impresario of industrial-grade history porn?

The second objection to Nazi Diggers comes from the defenders of cultural property and the fighters against looting, another impact of the turn in archaeology and heritage practice to recognizing that artifacts and sites are not merely sandboxes for private treasure hunters or open pit mines for the private antiquities collectors’ market.  A valid point certainly, and cause for the condemnation of other cable reality shows like American Diggers on Spike TV, which valorize looting and make it into a sort of a video contest in which the digger who can rip the most valuable thing out of the earth is the winner.  But then, for that, the American Institute of Archaeology’s favorite mythic archaeologist, Indiana Jones, is the champion of the world.

So what is my beef with the “”Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,”?  It can’t be faulted in relatively greater respect shown to of human remains, or the sophistication of its archaeological technique.  The excavation is headed by Dr.Caroline Sturdy Colls, a forensic archaeologist who teaches at Stafforshire University and whose 2012 dissertation, “Holocaust Archaeology: Archaeological Approaches to Landscapes of Nazi Genocide and Persecution” eminently qualifies to lead such a dig.

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls, star of "Treblinka: Hitler's Killing Machine" - Smithsonian Channel

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls, star of “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine” – Smithsonian Channel

But what is the show trying to show through archaeology?  An admiring promo in livescience.com credits the dig with being “The first-ever archaeological excavations at the Nazi death camp Treblinka [which has] revealed new mass graves, as well as the first physical evidence that this camp held gas chambers, where thousands of Jews died.”  Is this news to anyone?  Should not the remains of the victims be left in peace?  The camp, its purpose, its layout, and its mass extermination machinery has been extensively documented, not least by the history-conscious Nazis themselves. The archaeological finding that the Nazi’s did not quite obliterate all evidence of their crimes would hardly raise an eyebrow for most normal people.

But for the viewers, this scientific exercise provides a ghastly, voyeuristic entertainment.  Worse yet it actually provides holocaust deniers a kind of intellectual legitimacy.  Like the pseudo-scientific assertions of the Scientific Creationists who surf decontextualized scientific data and debates between scholars that evolution (and likewise in a different context, Global Warming) is just a theory, the comments have begun to roll in about the Treblinka dig:

Here are a few samples, questioning the archaeological interpretation of the site:

–Did a word search for “cubic” and “square”. No hits. Where are the numbers? How much area did they excavate, how many bodies did they find and / or estimate based on the grave volume?  How big were the mass graves? Compare that to other mass graves which are less politicized and we know the death count, and compare the sizes of the two to get an estimate. If you want to say, “well, we can’t find them all because most of them were incinerated. We got some Nazi to say that after pulling his teeth and crushing his balls a few times at Nuremburg.” – that’s conspiracy theorist logic based on confession extracted from torture.

–Oy vey, look at this picture of us digging in the ground. Obviously this proves that the Nazis holocausted over 60 trillion people. Don’t ask for any specifics, like about how much of the area was actually excavated, or how many bodies were actually exactly found.”

–So they found a brick wall and some tiles. Let’s rush out an article saying its gas chambers. Cheap journalism.
When will an archaeologist do work on the millions of German civilians that were fire bombed to death by the Allies, or the 25 million Christian Ukrainians killed by the Bolsheviks in the 30′s? Or the Japanese that we held in concentration camps and nuked. They get no memorials, no museums, no reparations, no constant media articles, no Hollywood movies. It would be nice to have more balance in the world.

Yes, archaeology can raise as many questions as it asks.  But they are often the wrong ones when archaeologists allow themselves to be packaged for fast-food, channel-surfing cable TV.

Newsflash from Jerusalem: Pot Calls Kettle Black

A truly pitiful example of the ideologically inspired and financed archaeological work in the “City of David.”  Is this a battle for “science” or just envy in not being allowed to claim the credit for another “this land really belongs to us” claim.  

Jeremiah’s Pit would have been another fine addition to the bogus Mazar corpus.  See, for example, blog report from Feb. 22, 2010.

Of course with Mazar or without her, this biblical chimera could still become a tourist attraction and a rationale for expropriation.   When will this government-approved misuse of archaeology stop?

Dr. Eilat Mazar expounding to the press, Feb. 2010

From Haaretz October 11, 2001

Top archaeologist decries Jerusalem dig as unscientific ‘tourist gimmick’

Dr. Eilat Mazar, who worked in close cooperation with the group – which promotes the ‘Judaization’ of East Jerusalem – says excavations carried out in violation of accepted procedures.

By Nir Hasson

An archaeologist who worked with the Elad association in Jerusalem’s City of David claims that the association and the Antiquities Authority are carrying out excavations “without any commitment to scientific archaeological work.”

Dr. Eilat Mazar – a Hebrew University archaeologist who worked in close cooperation with Elad over past years, and who is considered one of the most productive researchers in Jerusalem and in the City of David area in particular – has castigated Elad for the excavation of a large subterranean pit, called “Jeremiah’s Pit,” at the entrance to the City of David visitors’ center complex.

In a sharply worded letter she sent 10 days ago to Prof. Ronny Reich, chairman of the Archaeological Council, Mazar demanded an urgent discussion of the excavations, which she says are being carried out in violation of accepted procedures.

Mazar’s claims against Elad are being leveled at a crucial time as a proposed law to privatize public parks is being considered. If approved, the bill will enable Elad, a private association which excavates, maintains and conducts tours of the City of David, to maintain control of the historic site – situated in the predominantly Arab village of Silwan, adjacent to the Old City.

“To my astonishment I discovered that for over a year Elad, together with the Antiquities Authority, has been secretly planning a tourism gimmick called the ‘Jeremiah’s Pit Project,” writes Mazar in her letter, noting that the excavation is only two meters away from the excavation area that she directed between 2005 and 2008. She says that she wanted to continue digging in the present area, but was prevented from doing so “for logistical reasons, since north of the site the Antiquities Authority permitted Elad to build a special events hall,” and because of the area’s proximity to a residential building and a road.

Mazar claims that the excavation in the area of the pit contravenes several accepted practices in archaeology, among them, the digging up of an unusually small area of a mere “two squares,” or 10 square meters, which makes it difficult to analyze the findings in relation to the overall area. An excavation of this size, claims Mazar, is made only in situations where there is no other choice.

Mazar is also critical of the diggers’ intention to destroy the wall of the pit, which has not been properly investigated. She also notes that the dig “interferes with the nearby excavations,” which will undermine her ability to complete the research in the area. She claims that it is not acceptable to transfer an area being excavated by one archaeologist to another one, without the former’s consent.

Mazar raised these complaints to the director of the Jerusalem area in the Antiquities Authority, Dr. Yuval Baruch. He conveyed them to Antiquities Authority director Shuka Dorfman, who in turn rejected the complaints and approved the continuation of the excavation.

Antiquities Authority personnel said yesterday that Mazar, who asked to excavate the site and was turned down, received the status of a consultant to the excavation, but she wasn’t satisfied with that and turned to the council. An official reply from the Antiquities Authority said that “the excavation is a rescue dig for the purpose of tourism and the development of the national park. Near the site several archaeological excavations have been conducted, including that of Dr. Mazar. It seems that Dr. Mazar is trying to appropriate the site to herself and we regret that.”

Elad officials explained that it is not the association, but the Antiquities Authority that decides which archaeologist will conduct an excavation. Elad also claims that for several years Mazar has been aware of the project, which was designed to enable groups of tourists to visit the pit, and that she even promised not challenge it.

Attorney Boaz Fiel, representing Elad, noted in a letter that Mazar had signed a contract with the association, to the effect that she would not have “any claim or complaint against Elad regarding future excavations.” “In light of this clear and specific promise, how can we explain your present claim regarding any rights, as incomprehensible as they may be, to continue excavating at the site?” wrote Fiel.

The lawyer added:”It is hard to avoid the impression that your letter is nothing but an attempt to stop legitimate and vital work being carried out by our client, for reasons of ego and credit only, camouflaged as pseudo-professional complaints.” Fiel threatened to take legal steps against Mazar.

In the weekend newspapers Elad published large ads inviting the public to tour the new subterranean route that it has opened near the Western Wall complex. The ads were signed by the new public council of the association, headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel.

*  *  *

City of David excavations. Slippery indeed. From BiblePlaces.com Blog

Intangible Heritage as Theme Park?

Intangible Cultural Heritage Square?  Cruises Avenue?

I thought the whole idea of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was to offer encouragement to community expression through belief, performance, and crafts that are rapidly disappearing in our globalizing, mass-producing world.

It wasn’t just to collect and display colorful performances and souvenirs in a 21st century carnival.  Sure the Smithsonian Folklife Festival has brought together artists and craftsmen from all over the world every summer since 1967 on the United States’ national equivalent of a town green.  It’s free, always changing, and tied closely to the season.  

But an amusement park for Intangible Cultural Heritage, hoping to receive 8 million paying customers along its carefully planned walkways and performance areas?  Sounds like a bad case of the very same kind of mass-produced cultural packaging that the ICH Convention was meant to combat.

But then no one ever accused the Peoples’ Republic either of thinking small or allowing local community cultural expression to go unsupervised for too long…

World Bank President Robert Zoellick poses with colorful costumed minority culture person as many of the 8 million annual visitors to the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Exposition Park in Chengdu will undoubtedly do.

From The Peoples Daily Online – April 19, 2011

China’s first heritage exposition park to open in May

China’s first International Intangible Cultural Heritage Exposition Park is expected to open at the end of May in Chengdu, according to a press conference at the Third China Chengdu International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival on April 18.

The festival will last from May 29 to June 11 in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

The forthcoming International Intangible Cultural Heritage Exposition Park covers an area of more than 1.1 million square meters and will feature areas such as the Intangible Cultural Heritage Square, Cruises Avenue, the Exhibition Center, the Performance Center and the museum.

It will also combine intangible cultural heritage touring performances, entertainment, experience and consumption. After the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival is finished, the performances and exhibitions of intangible cultural heritage will become a normal part of the park.

After the construction of the park is completed, it will host the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival every two years and will also become a protection base for China’s intangible cultural heritage. It is expected that the park will receive more than 8 million visitors each year.

When Will They Ever Learn?

Regarding the recent “early-books-of-Christianity-discovered-by-a-bedouin-scam” reported here and elsewhere over the past week or so, information provided by Jim Davila’s always sensible and reliable Paleojudaica.com should put the whole thing to bed once and for all.

Ah, the Daily Mail. UFOs, celebrity gossip, and the earliest texts of Christianity. Photo: David Elkington/Rex Features (whatever that is)

Philip Davies should know better.

Margaret Baker should get her head out of the clouds.

The Director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, Ziad Al-Saad, should investigate an unprovenanced  discovery on the antiquities market more thoroughly before he makes muscular official statements to the press about “treasures” and make claims for repatriation.

And David Elkington, whoever you are, should never try to pull a stunt like this again.