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Colonialism and archaeology: The legacy lives on

January 17, 2015 at 2:47 pm

Thursday marked the 256th anniversary of the day the British Museum first opened its doors to the public. In 1759, the museum was the first of its kind: a national institution free and open to the public and which aimed to showcase the variety and depth of lived human experience. With artefacts from across the globe, and strange and exotic pieces from British colonies in Asia and the Middle East, it provided visitors with a mosaic of history and cultures – a microcosm reflective of British colonial power. Today, the museum hosts one of the largest collections of antiquities in the world, and has even recently expanded its remit to cover contemporary art from the Middle East.

Such fascination with different societies and cultures is historically part of what has made Britain so successful as a nation; and all the more important in today’s challenging times in which the spectres of Islamic extremism and not-so-distant wars seem to haunt the social imagination. As the Rt Rev Graham James said on BBC R4’s Today Programme in reference to recent events in Paris: “At places like the British Museum many of us realise how much we have to learn about places we’ve never visited, people we’ve never met, and things which happened long before we were born… We rarely have much that’s informed or challenging to say about different cultures, religions or ideologies if we know little about them.”

While the success of the British Museum and others like it is, on the one hand, a testament to human curiosity, innovation and foresight (many of the objects housed in such institutions would have either been damaged or destroyed if left in their original locations, and the majority require huge investment in time and money in order to preserve them for posterity), there is also a darker side to the history of archaeology, and one that I have hinted at above.

A visit to the British museum’s Ancient Iraq collection – where treasures from the ancient civilisations of Akkadia and Sumeria bear testament to the extraordinary richness of Mesopotamian history – is sufficient to witness this dark underbelly of archaeology and its entanglement with colonial power. The vast majority of the pieces in the Assyrian and Babylonian galleries were acquired during the 19th century, when excavations by British and French archaeologists in Mesopotamia were funded and encouraged by their respective governments, with the complicity of the Ottoman authorities to whom the three Iraqi provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra were seen as remote outposts in an empire centred on Eastern Europe and the Levant.

Indeed, even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the insertion of a British-backed king in the new nation of Iraq, archaeological teams from Europe and America had almost exclusive access to dig sites. Under the auspices of Gertrude Bell, who in 1926 established the Iraqi National Museum, foreign archaeologists were granted permission to excavate large swathes of Iraqi territory on the proviso that they would give half of everything they found to the newly established museum; the rest they kept for themselves and sold on to museums and collectors in the West.

The irony is, of course, that this large-scale plundering and profiteering from the historical riches of the Middle East and other colonial outposts was seen at the time not merely as a colonial right, but as a duty to posterity. The documentation and preservation of the Orient’s past was considered far too important to be entrusted to the locals. Just to quote one example, when in 1917 the British occupying forces in Iraq discovered hundreds of boxes of antiquities from previous German excavations at Samarra and Babylon, both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum in London lobbied for the relics to be transported back to the UK, where they would be accessible to European scholars and safe from potential damage or loss.

Such appropriation of another people’s cultural past has its roots in what some scholars have called the “discourse of civilisation”, in which the Western colonial powers took both practical and normative responsibility for the historical legacy of their colonial lands. In other words, “[t]he dominant discourse had it that the true heirs of the Middle Eastern legacy were not the Arabs, but the Europeans.”1

“Among the explorers, a state of mind developed that was patronising and paternalistic. If they had not made these discoveries, who would know of these great cities? If Arabs took the artefacts it would be, to these men, mindless looting; if the Western scholars shipped them home, often in vast consignments, it was to preserve them for posterity.”2

This kind of Western-colonial culturalist supremacy still echoes (albeit less strongly) in certain passages on the British Museum’s website; particularly on the pages relating to its ongoing Iraq Project, where it declares that “The British Museum has been, and still is, at the forefront in informing the public about the current situation and reminding its visitors of the importance of Iraq’s archaeological and historical legacy.” (Because, of course, the Iraqis can’t possibly be allowed to take sole responsibility of such an important task as documenting and preserving their own history.)

But the problem with this discourse is not that it is arrogant and patronising (which it is), but that so often it is considered to be a thing of the past. While the vast majority of Museum curators, archaeologists, and antique dealers and collectors would readily admit to the shady legacy of their professions, few would be willing to admit not only that the underlying discourse of cultural supremacy and – let’s call it what it is – racism persists to this day, but that it continues to actively contribute to the discovery and dissemination of archaeological artefacts around the world.

The recent fighting in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq – two countries with rich archaeological histories – has brought the world’s attention to an intriguing issue: the illegal looting and selling of historical treasures on the black market. Items dug from the ground by amateurs or looted from museums and shops (such as the mass looting of the Iraqi National Museum in 2003) have thus been dubbed “blood antiquities”, a name intended to draw parallels between the selling of ancient relics and the trafficking of diamonds in parts of the African subcontinent. As well as attracting mass media attention – especially following the rather unsurprising news that the sale of illegal antiques is believed to provide a source of funding for groups such as ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, and even Syrian government forces – there have been a number of books and articles, and even a film made about the issue.

It is certainly true that the trade in antiquities can provide a lucrative means for insurgents and renegade groups to sustain their operations, and in this sense is helping fuel the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq (indeed, more than 250 leading academics and experts have signed a petition calling for the UN to impose an international ban on the sale of such items). But such a one-dimensional flattening of the issue not only ignores much of the bloody and conflict-ridden history of colonial archaeology in the Middle East, but also serves to reinforce the patronising and paternalistic discourse of civilisation. Although perhaps less apparent than at the height of the colonial era, the normative condemnation of the buying and selling of antiques from the Middle East still smacks of a certain colonial-era pretension that while “we” in the West have the ability to properly care and preserve cultural relics, those “backwards” Arabs are squabbling and killing each other over ancient pots and tablets that would be better off safe in the confines of Western museums.

That is not in any way to condone the looting and black market selling of antiquities (which, may I add, is not just perpetrated by crazy Arabs but often quietly funded and sanctioned by Western collectors, dealers and yes, even museums themselves), but to continue to propagate a binary narrative of “us” and “them” that demonises those individuals struggling to make a living in near-impossible circumstances while glossing over the troubling facts of the West’s colonial past is merely adding fuel to the fire of Western paternalism in the Middle East. The almost palpable irony of Western countries – whose entire curatorial edifice is built on looted and black-market relics stolen from the people and land where they were found – condemning the contemporary looting and sale of antiques is almost too ludicrous to bear.

So next time you’re enjoying the stunning relics of the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or other such houses of archaeological miracles, consider not only where those artefacts have come from, but how and why they have ended up in the West. And consider, too, the kind of reductionist and culturally patronising narrative that helped put them there and that continues, to this day, to fuel hatred, intolerance and misunderstanding across the globe. Because the truth, however uncomfortable, is always more nuanced and more complex than any one narrative can encompass.


[1]Jane Lydon and Uzma Rizvi (eds.) ‘Introduction: Colonialism and European Archaeology.’ In the Handbook of Postcolonial Archaeology. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2010, pp. 39-50.


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