Friday, 25 August 2017


Destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2001
Since World War II issues of race and ethnicity have plagued us all. From the purge by Stalin, the killing fields of Cambodia, civil rights riots in the USA, apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda and The Balkans it seems the list is endless. It probably is. No corner of the world has been spared. Including the UK. Violations of all we stand for, committed so often in the name of religion and race. Today I don't want to discuss these abominations, but prefer to consider the role heritage has to play and what part we, as archaeologists, might have.

     The Cambridge Dictionary defines heritage as being "features belonging to the culture of a particular society, such as the traditions, languages or buildings, that were created in the past and still have historical importance". 

Ol Doinyo Lengai, The Masai "Mountain of God"
    Features also include geographical sites such as Ol Doinyo Lengai (Tanzania) or Uluru (Australia), documents, works of art, statues and many more besides.
Uluru: A sacred place for the Pitjantjatjara Anangu

     And yet a need to sanitise the past, through the wanton destruction of it's remains, seems to have taken hold. And I am not talking about war zones and terrorists here. But that which is happening within our society. Let me give you a some examples from the last two years.

     Following the removal of a similar statue, at the University of Cape Town  in 2015, a campaign started at Oxford University, host to a statue of Rhodes in Oriel College.
The Rhodes Statue, Oriel, Oxford University
The argument was that it represented Britain's colonial past. It's duplicitous leader, Nkotozo Qwabe, was later shown to be a racist (Daily Mail, 23rd Sept 2016) for wanting to "whip a white boy". Another activist, the pharisaical Joshua Nott, has accepted a Rhodes scholarship worth £40,000 to study at Oxford (Daily Telegraph, 23rd Jan 2017). You couldn't make it up.

     In Northern Ireland the debate rages over the future of the  Maze (Long Kesh) prison. At present it hosts the local air ambulance service, but for the rest.....the argument surrounds what it represents. Despite the best efforts of renowned academics like Prof. Audrey Horning the issue remains unresolved. 

     In the USA statues have become the focal point of racial hatred, symbolic of the past they purportedly represent. Some torn down and destroyed. As I write this Afua Hirsch contributes to the debate, (depending on your definition of contribution), suggesting that the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar square should be removed. (Afua Hirsch, 22nd August, 2017). They have all missed the point.

     I am fortunate. My life has led me across the world to witness many "wondrous things". But two of the most impressive, in that they impacted me profoundly , might surprise you. Not sure if impressive is the right word, but anyway.

     I recall visiting the Ossuary of Verdun, near Douaumont. It was a school trip and we were returning from an expedition in the Alps.

     All was jovial as we arrived, but the silence was deafening as we left. It remained that way all the way home. Even the possibility of an underage beer on the ferry could do nothing to break the spell.

     Later, on army leave, a colleague and I went to Auschwitz, just over 40 years after it's liberation. It was a sunny day but didn't seem that way somehow.

     Living memory. The survivors never really liberated. And all who visit cannot fail but to be overwhelmed by the very horrors of what transpired. I was and remain so to this day.

     Having heritage, in all it's guises, does not mean we condone the past. Nor does it represent the past. Heritage is memory, some good some bad, but nevertheless a reminder of our past. Activists at Oxford claimed "Removing the statue....would address our colonial past in an effort to decolonise our collective conscience". Conscience and belief, though often shared, are individual. The most basic of human rights.

      I do wonder if Abraham Lincoln, so carefully crafted into Mt. Rushmore by Gutzon Borglum, is next on their list. After all he possessed 300 slaves at the time of his tragic death. And would they then replace him with John  Wilkes Booth?

     Of course, the past shapes the present. But the "Rhodes Must Fall" campaigners, and others elsewhere, seem to believe that black and ethnic minorities are trapped by their history. That history is the cause of unending psychological trauma.This suggests not an assertion but a diminishment of agency, a view of black and ethnic minorities as not so much the shapers of history as its victims. Whereas the real decolonisers sought to throw off the yoke of history, "Rhodes Must Fall" campaigners appear to have let the past recolonise them.  

     Such campaigns present the human individual as vulnerable and damaged and in need of protection. They seek not to transform the world but to shield people from anything that they might find troubling or offensive or difficult.

     But turning a statue of Cecil Rhodes into an invented psychological trauma, or demanding that it be removed as an act of decolonisation, will neither change the way that people look upon the past nor challenge the injustices of the present.

     I agree with Kenan Malik, whose views in the previous two paragraphs above, were contained in an article published on Al Jazeera, 11th January 2016. I suggest you read the unabridged version.

     Regrettably, there will always be extremists. And they will always find focal points. They exist to sow division. By removing, albeit sometimes distasteful, reminders of the past, we pander to their predilictions. And that is the real point here. Heritage, in all it's forms, serves as a reminder of the past. An educational tool to be used wisely. They do neither represent, nor condone, that which has passed. The onus is on us, as archaeologists and historians, to deliver the message.