Archaeology and the Criminal In Us

As we watch the events unfold in Cairo, as the flames rise from the NDP Headquarters, there are fears that the Cairo Museum would/will be damaged or destroyed.  Wild rumors of human chains protecting the museum from looters mirror the equally emotional cries (mostly by archaeologists) of the barbaric looting of the Baghdad Museum.

Antiquities are seen as an unalloyed good, the property of all humanity, above politics.  But are they just the fetishes of the powerful, tokens and illustrations of a narrative that separates the haves from the have-nots?

The fact is that the administration of antiquities in Egypt has been part and parcel of an arrogant and capricious regime. Past folds into Present in an insidious way.

Billboard at the entrance to Luxor Photo: Brian McMorrow

The monuments and relics of Ancient Egypt have not been administered for the good of the Egyptian people but have been mercilessly exploited as an economic cash cow for foreign tourism and have served as the propaganda icons of a historical narrative (of a “timeless” Egyptian essence) that has been used in so many ways to justify the autocratic centralization of the Sadat-Mubarak regime.

What we are seeing now in the streets of Cairo and other cities give lie to the idea of inevitable pharaonism and peasant docility.  It may not last. Who knows?  But it reveals, at least for a brief moment, the empty assertions of the official narrative.

And that brings us to archaeology.  The cowardly sycophants who have groveled for excavation permits, humiliatingly deferred to the uninformed press conferences of government functionaries about their own discoveries, and who have obsequiously pandered to the strange ravings and “mummy chasings” of a powerful man who tried his best to turn Egyptology into a bizarre kind of unlettered, unreflective entertainment should take time to reflect on how much they supported the regime that is now frantically trying to save itself.

It is interesting how so much of the behavior of colonial and neo-colonial archaeologists and the finds that are often so wildly acclaimed and displayed around the world are themselves evidence of exploitation, tyranny, and privilege wrested from the long-suffering people of Egypt.  It’s true not only of Egypt, but so many of the places where “expeditions” uncover the physical remains of what will inevitably become a retrospectively self-congratulatory narrative of power by and for those who are now powerful.

W.H. Auden put it best in the coda to his last poem, Archaeology, written in 1974, not long after a visit to digs of ruined fortifications, burnt tyrants’ palaces, and “national” museums filled with their selfishly gathered treasures throughout the Middle East:

From Archaeology

one moral, at least, may be drawn,

to wit, that all

our school text-books lie.

What they call History

is nothing to vaunt of,

being made, as it is,

by the criminal in us:

goodness is timeless.

And as if to underline the point that fine art archaeology has been fully implicated in the dark side of human civilization, just look at the news report of this new exhibition in Berlin, where the brutality of collection, exhibition, and its destruction are all deemed marginal factors– far less important than the main achievement of the precious artifacts being brought back to wholeness again:

From the Art News  – Saturday January 29, 2011

Statues Devastated in World War II Go on Show at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

By Geir Moulson, Associated Press

BERLIN (AP)- The ancient gods and fantastical creatures going on show in Berlin this week have made an unlikely comeback from near-destruction.

Unearthed in present-day Syria a century ago, the 3,000-year-old basalt statues and stone reliefs in the exhibition, “The Tell Halaf Adventure,” shattered into thousands of pieces when their Berlin home was destroyed by bombing in 1943.

Fragments and a partial reconstructed sculpture are on display at the exhibition 'The Tell Halaf Adventure' at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011. The exhibition shows roughly 3,000-year old statues that have been pieced together over the past decade from fragments left behind when Berlin's Tell Halaf Museum was bombed in 1943. After the wartime bombing, the rubble was salvaged and stored for decades in the Pergamon Museum's cellars. Restorers sifted through some 27,000 fragments to restore the sculptures. AP Photo/Markus Schreiber.

The rubble was rescued, then slumbered in the vaults of the capital’s Pergamon Museum, then in East Berlin, for decades before a painstaking restoration project started in 2001.

Over the past decade, restorers sifted through around 27,000 fragments of rubble and gradually reassembled most of them.

About 40 resurrected figures — including a pair of lions that once bared their teeth at the entrance of a palace at Tell Halaf in northeastern Syria, a sphinx and a long-tressed female figure from a monumental grave — go on show to the public at the Pergamon Museum on Friday.

“No one could have imagined several years ago that this exhibition would be possible,” Michael Eissenhauer, the director of Berlin’s state museums, said Thursday. “Tell Halaf had been forgotten. It was thought to be certain that the pieces which disappeared in 1943 were irretrievably lost.”

German archaeologist Max von Oppenheim led excavations at the Tell Halaf site between 1911 and 1913. He first put the figures on display in Berlin in 1930, at a private museum in a former iron foundry that was destroyed during the war.

Oppenheim arranged for the rubble to be salvaged and stored in hopes of one day recreating the statues — but it would be decades after his death in 1946 before that dream was realized.

During Germany’s postwar division, the rubble lay across the Cold War divide from the collection’s owner, the Max von Oppenheim Foundation. Only in the 1990s, after German reunification, did officials start examining whether the statues might be restored.

The foundation helped fund the several-million-euro cost of the restoration.

For the full story, click here.

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3 thoughts on “Archaeology and the Criminal In Us

  1. Pingback: Virtual Participation, Politics, and Egyptian Antiquities | Middle Savagery

  2. Pingback: Collateral damage: Egyptian archaeology « Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives

  3. Pingback: Of people and things: Egyptian protest and cultural properties « The Berkeley Blog

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