War on Archeology
POSTED MAY 23, 2001

 

1. Digging under fire

2. Dig Iraq?

3. Archeology - political tool

4. Rocket museum

 

Jerusalem is revered by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The gold dome is the Dome of the Rock, a mosque protecting the point from which Muhammad leaped to heaven. To Jews, this is the Temple Mount, site of the first and second temples, since destroyed. Courtesy Wayne Blank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War is hell for living things -- and for archeology

 

Archeology: Another casualty of war
View of Jerusalem shows wall and gold dome.As the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians peaked in the last few months, too much blood has been spilled, and too many houses wrecked. No doubt you've read all about it. But without downplaying the appalling human toll of the ongoing conflict, there are other victims as well.

How, for example, is the war affecting archeology? The Holy Land, after all, is one of the world's archeological treasures. Home to the three great monotheistic religions, it's also the bridge between the great ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, in present-day Iraq.

According to the New York Times (see "Strife May Delay ..." in the bibliography), many U.S. archeologists are planning to curtail digs this summer.

With conditions so perilous in the Holy Land, few archeologists seemed eager to go on record. However, Aren Maeir, who teaches archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at Bar Ilan University in Israel and runs the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, e-mailed us to list some problems caused by the intifada (Palestinian rebellion), terrorism, and Israeli response.

Fewer volunteers and students from abroad "since the area sounds scary (and sometimes is) ," Maeir wrote. Many digs, he notes, are in poorly protected, remote areas. Thus most volunteer-oriented digs have cancelled operations this summer;

Difficulty raising funds. "It seems that the overall political situation has a very bad effect on the willingness to give to archaeology in Israel";

Less looting of archaeological sites "since the looters, who are for the most part low-income Palestinians from the rural areas of the West Bank, 'are busy with other issues.'"

Map of world shows archeological locations.

The problems caused by war and strife concern far more than one strip of territory, however.

In the Arab nation of Yemen, archeologists were conspicuous by their absence during last fall's digging season. The culprit? Tensions resulting from the war on terrorism (see "War is Latest Assault..." in the bibliography)

The Parthenon, in Athens, may be the classic example of the dangers war poses to ancient buildings. In 1687, the Turks used the Greek building as an ammo dump - and it blew up when the army of Venice attacked. The damage was later compounded, some Greeks say, when the British lugged sculpture from the facade for display in the British Museum.

Excavation at the giant Angkor complex, in Cambodia, came to a halt for 30 years due to the unending war and strife.

In Iraq, where cities, armies, agriculture and writing were invented, and where archeological sites are practically wall-to-wall, a decade of military and economic tension and economic collapse has followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. That's taken a severe toll on the archeological infrastructure and halted most foreign digging; we'll return to the issue.

In 2001, the Taliban in Afghanistan, in one of their last acts of fundamentalist fervor, blew up two giant stone Buddhas that had stood for about 18 centuries. The statues were adjudged the work of infidels.

Large stone Buddha carved into side of cliffThis too has passed. In 2001, the two giant Buddhas at Bamiyan in central Afghanistan fell victim to Taliban zealotry -- and Taliban explosives. Judge the size from the person sitting on the statue's right foot. © Bryn Jones.

But war is not always bad for archeology. The infrastructure and remains of war - the forts, battlefields, and now research sites - may supply tomorrow's archeological sites. Later, we'll cover a new museum at Peenemunde, where Nazi Germany invented the V2, warfare's first long-range rocket.

And while politics can put a halt to archeology, ethnic, nationalistic or religiously-oriented political parties sometimes welcome archeology -if it can be distorted to serve parochial purposes. In the Middle East, numerous claims to territory are based on interpretations of archeological finds. And excavations directed by Hindu nationalists in India are being used to try to prove that the Indo-Aryan culture originated in India, and that the Indus Valley area supported a Vedic Hindu culture.

Ready for a tour of war, politics and archeology? Grab your pith helmet. Shoulder your Kalashnikov. Time to dig.

 

 

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Terry Devitt, editor; Pamela Jackson, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.