All posts in February 2015

  • Monumental Destruction: Condemnation vs. Celebration

    Monuments are a curious concept in modern society – just as the victors often write history, those in power are also responsible for determining what is valuable – what is worth memorializing and what should be forgotten. What defines “good” destruction from “bad?”

    Although upon first hearing that question one would likely wonder what destruction of a monument could ever be “good?”

    Pieces of Berlin wall for sale. Credit: NBC

    Pieces of Berlin wall for sale. Credit: NBC

    November 9, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – an event many would argue as a major turning point toward a more unified Germany, more unified Europe, and a more prosperous West – its destruction overall. Few today would argue that the Berlin wall should have remained intact. Yet, will archaeologists hundreds of years from now consider the destruction of the wall a loss of important tangible heritage? Only time will tell. But today, as nations the world over work to have pieces of cultural heritage repatriated to their homeland, it may seem contradictory that we laud the sale or loss of some of these items yet celebrate the sale of others, in particular pieces of the Berlin wall.

    On the one hand, the argument can be made for the sale of such a (literally) dividing piece of history in the sense that it empowers a people to reclaim their society and take back their freedoms. However, once this history becomes antiquity will future minds have changed about the sale of this major portion of history? Even decades later, past tourists are returning pieces of monuments such as those at Pompeii – yet at the same time a piece of the Berlin wall can be found on eBay.

    On the left: A man uses a sledgehammer to smash a statue of Lenin during a rally organized by supporters of EU integration in Kiev, Ukraine, on December 8, 2014. Credit: The Atlantic. On the right: Members of ISIS purportedly destroy a 3,000 year old Assyrian statue - a widely condemned move. Credit: Aina

    On the left: A man uses a sledgehammer to smash a statue of Lenin during a rally organized by supporters of EU integration in Kiev, Ukraine, on December 8, 2014. Credit: The Atlantic. On the right: Members of ISIS purportedly destroy a 3,000 year old Assyrian statue – a widely condemned move. Credit: Aina

    But admittedly, Europe is not my forte – so let’s look at an example that may have more resonance with the current era: the toppling of Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq.

    You’ve seen this scene before – from the invaders of ancient history conquering their enemies, to the demonstrators of Ukraine protesting communism today, to the destruction of ancient societies by modern ones – such as the recent campaign of ISIL today. Why is it that we lament the losses from destruction of the ancient world, while lauding the same types of destruction for monuments today?

    Perhaps it is the fact that some believe that time can make something valuable.

    Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 5.31.03 PM

    Yet, if an object’s worth appreciates with time – are we then undermining the value of our future by not lamenting the destruction of modern history in the same way that we condemn the destruction of our past?

    Should we only be condemning the demolition of our past and not our future? Who should determine what is ok to destroy and what is not? These are questions with many answers, and we are looking to you to send us your thoughts!

     

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    Here’s some further reading to help you inform your thoughts on the argument:

    Tomb Destruction and Scholarship: Medieval Monuments in Early Modern England

    Targeting the Symbolic Dimension of Baathist Iraq: Cultural Destruction, Historical Memory and National Identity

    Monuments and Memory in Early Modern England

    Your piece of the Berlin Wall is not special

    Demonizing the tyrant: Saddam Hussein’s image in Spanish news programs during the Second Persian Gulf War

  • Archaeology in Pop Culture: Helping or Hindering the Discipline?

    When most people hear “archaeology” one of the first things that comes to mind is Indiana Jones.  How is it that a pop culture icon became the mascot of a scientific discipline?

    Archaeology – and all of the romanticized tales of ancient mummies and temples that come with it – has been entwined in pop culture since people first began literally digging into our history.

    In the late nineteenth century, common fads for elites involved “mummy unwrapping parties.” Although today many would see this as a desecration of a deceased person, most elite Victorians didn’t see anything wrong with damaging pre-Christian bodies.

    Mummies were simply a curiosity of the orient. But as the study of the ancient Near East became a common place academic discipline – particularly after the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 by Jean François Champollion – archaeology found its way into the imaginations of the West and the increasingly developing world of popular culture.

    Ancient Egypt was used to sell everything from cigarettes to soap.  And it carved out its own niche in Hollywood well before the days of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider.

    Elizabeth Taylor’s famous role as Cleopatra is still well known in popular culture today as one of the iconic images of Cleopatra – never mind that many historians believe that it was not physical beauty, but wit, wisdom, and womanly cunning that made the real Cleopatra a legend of history. In reality, she is an example of what women should be valued for in society – their intellect and strength of character – but this was not the idealized beauty that Western culture wanted to portray.

    Politics of women in history and Hollywood aside – one question remains: do the common misconceptions created by archaeology in popular culture hinder or help the overall discipline?

    Some may think that if the public is going to learn about archaeology or history is should be with accuracy from the beginning.

    However, here’s my person opinion: As someone who began studying the discipline just at the cusp of the recession and finished grad school with the effects of an economic crisis in full swing, I must say that anything that gets the public interested enough in a discipline to patronize a museum or donate to an archaeological excavation is something worth containing.  Most people get into a science one way or another based on a romanticized view of what it is.  Unfortunately, cut backs in government funding for research and an economic crisis that has made many funding sources at foundations and universities tighten their belts means that other routes of funding must be sought.

    But this is a debate that can go on forever – so what are your thoughts on archaeology in pop culture?  Does it damage the mind of the public or expand it?Crowd funding has become a new means of revenue for archaeologists to seek in gathering funding for their research.  But with a source of funding that relies on the public, archaeologists must be able to appeal to the internet world’s non-scholars to get their attention – and of course dollars. This kind of appeal would not be nearly as effective if it weren’t for all of the fantasized, glorified, and heroic archaeology adventures that Hollywood and western culture portray – regardless of how inaccurate it is.  Those inaccuracies provide an opportunity to grasp the imagination of the wider public and engage them in a way where those misinformed interests can be put to rest in the name of science.

     

    For further info on crowdfunding your archaeo-project  and archaeology in pop culture, check these out:

    Crowdfunding Archaeology: Exploring the Potential of Crowdfunding in Archaeological Research

    Crowdfunding Archaeology some Data, Finally!

    Using Social Networks to Fundraise: Crowdfunding for the Archaeologist

    Archaeology is a brand: The meaning of archaeology in contemporary pop culture