Who owns the Past?

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“Because men really respect only that which was founded of old and has developed slowly, he who wants to live on after his death must take care not only of his posterity but even more of his past: which is why tyrants of every kind (including tyrannical artists and politicians) like to do violence to history, so that it may appear as preparation for and step-ladder to them.

(Nietzsche, in Hollingdale, 1977, 273)

Awareness of the past is intrinsic to humanity, our memories confirm who we are, giving us a sense of identity as individuals, a community or a nation.  However there is no one, unchangeable past, rather many kinds are created which coincide with the time, place and persuasion of the individuals involved.  Nevertheless, certain “authorities” assert their right to “own” such interpretations and relics, usually for intellectual or political reasons.  Archaeologists are one such group, and archaeology has played a significant role in promoting nationalist ideals.  In addition, there has been much public concern over who should own or use antiquities, being the prime symbols of identity of a culture.  As the issue has led to much conflict intellectually, in the distortion of the archaeological record, and politically, leading to the suppression of civil liberties of many peoples, it is essential to question who owns the past.

Throughout the ages, in all parts of the world, people have used history and tradition to create a common identity with each other.  Ruling groups have sort to bolster their prestige by invoking mythical links to gods or some glorious past, and minority groups have used the past in resisting oppression by dominant groups.  The past and its remains are continually altered and reinterpreted, as we in the present continually interact with it.   As Lowenthal aptly states, “every relic is a testament not only to its initiators but to its inheritors, not only to the spirit of the past but to the perspectives of the present” (1985, 412).  Uses of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington (between 1939-63), is an interesting example of the ways in which different groups remember the American past.  For white Americans, Lincoln was the saviour of the Union, uniting North and South, hence the memorial is a symbol of this unity.  Whereas for black Americans, Lincoln was seen as the “great emancipator”, abolishing slavery.  Thus the memorial had been used throughout the Civil Rights Movement as a ritual place for protest, in uniting activists and legitimating black political action (Sandage, 1993).  Stonehenge is another example portraying the complexity of people’s interaction with and use of past monuments.  The site is much more than a monument to the past, rather it is “living” place, part of and reflecting today’s society.  Chippindale et al. (1990) give an excellent account regarding differing attitudes to its use (as a druid site, an astronomical observatory, a storehouse of ancient knowledge, or a place for festivals).   

There is a prevailing attitude among archaeologists (and historians) that their interest in the past is more “genuine” than other people’s, and that their interpretations are the “objective” and correct ones. Yet archaeologists are not the only people with a “genuine” interest in the past, and the legitimacy of rights and interests of non-archaeologists should be recognised.  There appears to be conflict between two distinct groups; “popularisers”, amateurs who publicize the archaeological past in the popular media to the general public, and “professionalisers”, those who move the archaeological past away from the popular media and the public, guarding it as specialist territory (Gero, 1989, 98).  Although a professional archaeologist’s opinion is commonly seen as of a superior nature than certain “fringe” theories espoused by the public, it must be remembered that the past is re-created through a subjective selection of data and events, and interpreted to suit the interests of the archaeologist.

The assumption that archaeologists have privileged access to the past has been questioned regarding their relationship with contemporary native peoples, such as the Native American Indians and Australian Aborigines, particularly concerning the “reburial” issue.  These indigenous groups have protested against the excavation of their burial sites and use of their ancestor’s remains for scientific study or display, and have demanded their return for reburial.  The issue is complex as federal law and policy defines these grave sites as “relics of antiquity”, providing unique data on patterns of disease, diet, and population, some of which cannot be obtained by any other source.  Therefore their scientific value overrides the cultural beliefs of the living population (Hubert, 1989, 131).   Yet for the indigenous people the sites are not “dead” but “living” and sacred to them as embodiments of ancestral spirits, of which they are the living descendants.  It seems that governments disregard these people as part of a “dead” culture, that needs to be “integrated” into modern society.  In the words of a Bolivian Indian, the government would only treat the indigenous peoples as citizens, “on (the) condition (that) we renounced our cultural heritage, which was supposed to be relegated to the museums, alienated, and converted into a mere souvenir of a dead past” (Condori, 1989, 46).  The issue revolves around the major discrepancy between what we as people believe about the rights concerning our own dead, and we as scientists/archaeologists believe about the dead of others (Hubert, 1989, 134).

Archaeologists do not work in a vacuum isolated from the political and social conditions of the time, rather archaeology is inescapably linked to politics.  As Tilley asserts, “there is no need to bring politics into archaeology.  It has been there from the beginning” (1989, 107).  In agreement with Tilley, the problem is not that archaeology is a political discourse, and subject to differing views which are constantly being re-evaluated, but that many archaeologists do not realise this, and thus are deceiving themselves and others in trying to give an “objective” explanation (Ibid., 110).  For instance, as males have provided the intellectual framework for interpreting the archaeological past, women are often marginalised and misrepresented in aspects such as state formation and division of labour, to craft specialisation and trade (see Gero & Conkey, 1991).  Western intellectual tradition is not the only culprit (see introductory quote), many societies dismiss the important role of women in past societies.  Among the Bestileo of Madagascar, it is the oldest males who have the authority to speak about the past, and forbid women from proclaiming such knowledge (Layton, 1989, 8).  Therefore, as archaeologists we should critically assess our own interpretations, asking ourselves whose past we are serving.

To summarise, the attitude that archaeologists should be a privileged group in accessing the past at the expense of other groups’ opinions, must be disregarded.  Archaeology can only continue to develop if it can show itself to be interesting and relevant to the public at large.  Perhaps if archaeologists take notice of the perception of the past held by the public, and try to interact more with people, “fringe” ideas and methods (such as metal detecting) might decrease.  More importantly, at a time when government funding can no longer be relied on to even produce half of finance required for the excavation of sites in need of rescue, the public must be made aware of the importance of all archaeological work (Stone, 1989, 203).

The real threat concerning ownership of the past and its remains, lies not with the archaeologists themselves, but in the use of archaeology in the “service of the state” (Kohl & Fawcett, 1995, 3-18).  Frequently archaeological remains have been manipulated to justify ownership of land, or to promote ethnocentricity, particularly when a nation feels threatened.  A “nation” which is commonly defined as a people inhabiting a particular area united by shared political institutions, are not natural entities, but created, though they are often asserted as such (Banks, 1996, 2).  In the rise of nationalism or the establishment of new political regimes, the past’s remains are used by competing power groups.  Though for Appadurai the past is not “an infinite and plastic symbolic resource”, rather accepted interpretations of the past are subject to certain universal constraints, which vary from culture to culture (1981, 201).  Fekri Hassan gives an excellent study on the role of materials of the past in fostering Egyptian national identity (1997).  He states that Egypt’s  present identity is with its Islamic heritage rather than its pharoanic past, though the latter is a “political card” that is evoked in times of external conflict, for example during the revolution of 1919 (Ibid., 11).

Governments have asserted their authority in interpreting not just their past, but in the context of imperialism or colonialism, other peoples as well.  The actions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1930’s-1940’s, deliberately distorted the archaeological record in such a way.  In Nazi Germany, archaeologists received much funding to bolster German nationalism.  The prehistoric record was manipulated (prehistory being particularly vulnerable depending on a minimum amount of data, and a maximum amount of interpretation), to prove the superiority of German people and Germany’s right to claim land, which it supposedly owned in prehistory, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia (Arnold, 1990, 464-78).  Most German archaeologists passively accepted state funding, teaching the “politically correct” history (Ibid., 468).  Soviet response to German “ethno-genetic” expansion, was to try to destroy Germany ideologically, while bolstering its own superiority.  Thus archaeologists tried to prove an independent local formation of a rich and unique early Slavic culture, while demonstrating the backwardness of early Germanic tribes and their negative influence on adjacent peoples (Shnirelman, 1995, 133).

Though nationalism can be advantageous in providing a basis for resisting colonial oppression (“protest” archaeology, Silberman, 1995), at the same time such measures have destroyed the integrity of the archaeological record.  In reference to Chinese archaeology in the years 1949-1979,  partly to legitimise the communist regime, and partly in response to the “colonial” encroachment on its territory and the vast number of antiquities stolen from China by these powers,  Xia Nai (the late Director of the Institute of Archaeology) severed connections with contemporary foreign studies, and Chinese scholars emphasised the indigenous origins and complete independent sequence of development of Chinese culture (Tong, 1995, 183).  This policy had a debilitating effect on Chinese archaeology, as aside from the persecution of archaeologists who did not align with the “politically correct” view of history, under communist rule (particularly during the Cultural Revolution), cultural treasures sustained more losses than during the 5,000 year history of Chinese civilisation (Ibid., 193).  A similar situation exists in Korea, the purpose of archaeology being to validate Korean ethnicity (Nelson, 1995, 218).  As other countries such as Japan and China claim their stake in its past, Korea emphasises the migration of a whole Korean people into the peninsular at one time from some other previously established homeland, rather than correctly perceiving the development of their culture from a number of diverse sources (Ibid., 230).  The irony is that in doing this, archaeologists cannot search for actual Korean ethnicity, as the archaeological record  is so distorted.

Colonialist archaeology according to Trigger, has developed in countries whose native population was wholly replaced or overwhelmed by European settlement, or in ones where Europeans remained politically and economically dominant, such as America or Australia (1984, 360).  Imperialist archaeology is interlinked with colonialism, whereby a small number of states such as England or Russia exert political dominance over large area of the world, and engage in research there (Trigger, 1984, 364).  In colonial areas, history began when the colonials arrive, who were usually white, western, middle class males.  This sort of archaeology served to portray the indigenous peoples as a static, savage race that with only colonial help could evolve. Thus Cortes is honoured as a hero in the west, in taming the savage Mexicans, and Christianising them, but to the Mexicans themselves, he is remembered as the bearer of disease, slavery and genocide.  In the context of  Benin, Africa, it was important for the British colonials to portray native peoples as a “degraded” race, thus justifying the raid on Benin city (1897) and the removal of their bronze work.   The metalwork in Benin city was attributed not to the Africans themselves, but to a “former” civilisation such as Egypt (Combes, 1994).  As the saying goes, “history is written by the winners”, thus the “losers” are marginalised in history.  Though ethnocentricity is being dismantled, present racism still inhibits research into the heritage of minority groups (see Paynter, 1994, 49-62, regarding Afro-American sites).

Nationalistic, colonialist and imperialist archaeology are not the only forms of archaeology that pervert the material record.  “Tourist” archaeology (Silberman, 1995), revealed in museums, theme parks, films and novels, is particularly distressing being the main medium for familiarising the public with archaeology.  Museums can be a powerful tool in enabling the public to form attitudes about the past.  Yet in agreement with Tilley, they do not inspire the public (an exception perhaps being the Jorvik Viking centre, Addyman, 1994, 257-264), in actively defining their past.  In theory, a museum exhibition should be a neutral medium, in practice, exhibitions make political statements portraying the curator’s particular perspectives.  Objects are labeled, facts are given, when in reality there are differing views and interpretations that should be left to the public to reflect on.  Theme parks are similar to museums, but individual objects are displayed not only out of context, but in a new fabricated one which affects our perception of the past.  These institutions are selling a sort of past that is directed by “attendance figures and revenue expectations”, rather than “scholarly insights” (Silberman, 1995, 261).  Kristiansen similarly adds “Fictive” and “commercial” archaeology.  “Fictive” archaeology is that which is seen so often in films, cartoons and historical novels (Indiana Jones, and recently, The English Patient), of the “heroic” male archaeologist, finding rich treasures without a measure of digging.  “Commercial” archaeology is used in marketing products, such as cigarettes, and perfume and such like.

The logical consequence of ceasing the control and manipulation of the past by certain groups, is in asserting that everyone owns the past, and that each person’s reading of the past is as valid and justifiable as another’s.  Yet there are inherent difficulties with this view.  Firstly, affirmative action is required in the case of indigenous people who have been deprived of access to and control over their past.  Secondly, the idea of relativism; that all explanations of the past have equal validity, has led to bigotry, violence and destruction, at least as often as has promoted social justice (Trigger, 1995, 263).  One needs only to mention Bernal’s hotly debated “Black Athena” as an example.  Bernal asserts that evidence concerning the true nature of Egypt as a part of “Black Africa” and its contribution to Greek civilisation, has been suppressed by racist, western colonisers of the nineteenth century (1987).  His work has received much criticism, particularly in the sources of evidence he uses, though Egypt did influence Greece, it was not to the extent of colonisation, which Bernal suggests.  Ancient Egyptians regarded themselves as ethnically distinct from other African peoples, as well as from peoples of the Near East and Europe (Leftowitz & Rogers, 1996, xii).  Moreover as mentioned, today Egyptians do not regard themselves as African but Arab, being part of the Islamic world. This afrocentrism can have an adverse effect on itself, as Egypt’s supposed dominance in Africa can and has demoted other African achievements, such as the aforementioned craftwork at Benin.  The only other alternative, is in claiming that no-one owns the past, as it does not exist in ownerable form.  Maybe so in an ideal world, but antiquities are owned in the legal sense, and the right to interpret accounts of the past is still constrained by law and will continue to be.

To conclude, as the past is contested ground, the particularities of the individual should be taken into consideration, whenever archaeology and the past in general are discussed.  Archaeology, being inescapably political, is often subject to control and manipulation by governments, to foster nationalist ideals, promote evolutionary superiority, or even to suppress peoples.  Nothing justifies this deliberate distortion of the archaeological record or its misinterpretation to serve such ends, integrity should be placed foremost in any interpretations of our past.  It is imperative that we recognise ourselves not as distinct, isolated entities, but as part of humanity, and like the past, we are constantly changing and re-creating ourselves, and our surroundings.  As archaeologists we should critically assess our own role in such issues, particularly questioning whose past we are serving.  As Hassan accurately states, “archaeology is a major force in contemporary world affairs, as archaeologists we may consider the great implications of our practice and our role in shaping a new world that will drastically alter the course of human civilisation” (1997, 3).


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