PRETORIANS, OSTRICHES OR INTELLECTUALS? For a reflection on Western archaeology in Syria

By Stefano Valentini e Guido Guarducci (CAMNES co-directors)
Palmira (Syria)
Recent statements appeared in the national and international press (see for example: La guerra in Siria ora si combatte tra gli archeologi internazionali, by Francesca Paci, La Stampa, Opinioni of 19/01/2017*) have brought to the fore the internal debate of the scientific community of Near Eastern archaeologists, on the Syrian issue and particularly on how and with whom to cooperate to protect the archaeological heritage of the country. A debate which sees lined up on opposite sides, two factions who see the role of the archaeologist in very different ways to each other.
On the one hand, the archaeologists that on December 10th met in Damascus to discuss the fate of the Syrian archaeological heritage at the invitation of the General Directorate of Antiquities of Damascus. On the other hand, the archaeologists that have interpreted this participation as a "deplorable political support" to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. On the one hand the position of those who in the name of a noble purpose -that to defend archaeological heritage- are proponents of a collaboration between the scientific community and the Directorate General of Antiquities of Damascus, which is still officially recognized by UNESCO. These archaeologists, defending their role of scholars external to political logic, accuse their colleagues of "politicizing archeology" and of "neo-colonialism". On the other hand, the position of those who (among them many signatories of the Ethics Charter for Near Eastern Archaeology and Assyriology, reply that "to speak of Syria in 2017 can only be political, because 75% of senior managers of the General Directorate of Syrian Antiquities has left the country, and why, according to the UN, 80% of the victims depends on the loyalist bombing; and even the destruction of archaeological heritage, from Aleppo to Homs, is the result of  raids. " For these archaeologists a commitment for civilians and respect towards the struggle of the Syrian people, come before the antiquities issue.
The question, however, is not so much on when ("When is the right time to take care of archaeological antiquities in a war like the one in Syria?") But on how archaeologists can succeed in order to preserve the Syrian archaeological heritage.
Transcending for a moment the situation at hand (here and now), in order to attempt to comment on this issue with a future perspective, maybe we should, without being exhaustive, try to analyse and understand what was Eastern Archaeology in Syria at the time it reached its point break, i.e. 2011, at the beginning of civil war. The Archaeology of the Ancient Near East was certainly not anymore the colonial archeology of beginnings - that of the great discoveries of Layard and Botta in the 19th century- or neither that of the early 20h century, with Sir L. Woolley and T.E. Lawrence at Carchemish or Baron Von Oppenheim at Tell Halaf. It was, objectively and with respect to other 'archaeologies', a modern discipline, often avant-garde, from the purely methodological and scientific point of view, which however, showed, in addition to a strong resilience, evident internal contradictions, especially from an ethical point of view (and the recent events only confirm this).
It is not outrageous to claim that the vast majority of the members of this scientific community, until 2011, had expressed a very cautious attitude (in the positive sense) or rather detached (in a more negative sense) towards the issue, which for convenience we will define as etho-politic. As a matter of practical opportunity (continue one’s own research) or academic narcissism, several archaeologists professed themselves scholars of history and ancient cultures; and, therefore, apolitical and released by the contemporary context of their activities in the field. In a sort of alienation from the social and political environment that surrounded them. And this it was, with some exceptions, the daily life of many archaeological missions of which we were all somehow witnesses, confirming that this scientific-academic world still maintained a modus operandi full of ambiguities, made of conservatism and immobility, and an approach of colonial derivation as a result of its 'Orientalism' (in the formulation of Edward Said’s homonymous essay of 1978). An asymmetric relationship with the host country that is confirmed by a couple of examples above all: the more or less total ban on all missions to talk about the political situation, even less with the locals, and the relationship between the scientific community and the workers, again local, characterized by an objective imbalance in the presence on the excavation of Western archaeologists (only a few) and local archaeologists (dozens) and the absence of safeguards in terms of labor rights, safety and economic compensation for the workers.
Who among the archaeologists reminds his colleagues that they were all in Syria in 1982 when Hama was razed to the ground by Hafez al-Assad's father is, therefore, right. On that occasion no member of the scientific community, after becoming aware of the facts, took a critical view of the regime. And we can add that, with very few exceptions, not one of the archaeologists active in Syria, until 2011, has condemned the restrictions on freedom and on civil and political rights of the Syrian government. This is a fact.
Then came 2011, when things have degenerated, in an escalation of violence until the recent events in Aleppo. That date establishes the point of no return, which has radically changed the real prospects of Near East archaeology in Syria, making seemingly impossible the compromise by virtue of the 'lesser evil', which had marked the relations with the Syrian government. On this aspect, is right who claims that now "it is impossible to pretend that nothing happened." The archaeologists of the ancient Near East can no longer just forward an opinion on the destruction of the ruins of a site, no matter how important it may be.
Undoubtedly an extremely complicated situation in which, however, the scientific community of the 'Oriental archaeologists', could take the opportunity, once and for all, to question itself on what should be the role of the archaeologist, as a cultural mediator between past and present cultures (as scholars), but also between Western culture and that of the host countries (as intellectuals).
Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Quaderni dal Carcere, (ed. Einaudi, 1975, vol. III, pp. 1550-1551): "Non-intellectuals do not exist. There is no human activity from which we can exclude intellectual intervention, you cannot separate homo sapiens from homo faber. Every man, outside of his profession exerts some intellectual activity, participates in a conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and helps to support or to modify a view of the world, that is, to stimulate new ways of thinking. "
You can agree or not with this statement, but for those who consider it still valid and relevant, beyond contingent personal positions, this is the true question.
As intellectuals, we cannot refuse to make a retrospective critical analysis on our work in Syria until 2011, on our mistakes and our omissions (whether they are motivated or not, conscious or unconscious). And this applies to everyone. Especially for those who in the past have been Ostriches and now, as Praetorian Guards, they have proclaimed themselves as the only defenders of humanitarian ethics in matters concerning the archaeological heritage.
 As intellectuals, we have an obligation to reject in toto (not depending on the circumstances and situations of convenience) all those cultural mechanisms by which the intellectual colonization is realized. Among them, first of all, the simplification of the phenomena taking place, which ultimately limits the process of analysis that needs to be not only critical, but also the result of intellectual freedom and selflessness. And that has the effect of creating an ideological conflict between partisans, rather than a fertile debate including also different positions.
This cultural revolution of the discipline cannot take place unless we start to overcome, once and for all, the tendency to resurface the never dormant academic conflicts, between different universities and their different schools, which characterized the Italian scene. Is sufficient to honestly read between the lines of the list of names of the Italian archaeologists that signed the Penn Cultural Heritage Center Paper, those that are present and those that are missing.
Still referring in particular to the Italian situation, this cultural revolution of the discipline cannot be achieved without resolving the generational issue, leaving to the young researchers, who will be the next to return (hopefully as soon as possible) to dig in Syria, the freedom of choosing their own way. Although many of them already have a past as archaeologists in Syria, never having a decision-making role until the events of 2011, they are the only ones to have a perspective in terms of time and the necessary lucidity to face the future, without the burden of a past that for someone elder may become too cumbersome.
It is up to these young people, with full assumption of their responsibility, the task of reshaping the archeology of the Ancient Near East -putting to good use all their past experience and the teaching of their mentors- and conveying this discipline within the actuality of the new scenario that we are facing.
Above all, it is up to them the effort to develop new strategies and new approaches that allow archaeologists to look not only to Syria but to the entire Middle East with new eyes. This time it happened in Syria, but if we want to look a little further ahead, we cannot ignore, without opportunistic strabismus, the situation in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen; all countries in which freedom of opinion and human rights are severely limited, but where archaeologists, many of which already active in Syria until 2011, continue to work. Even in these cases, the question of ethics needs to be tackled immediately for what it is. It cannot be delayed hypocritically, simply because we have not come to a civil war as in Syria.
Truly without hypocrisy. With the knowledge that between the white of the ostriches and the black of the Praetorians (the color attribution is purely coincidental) there is a whole gray scale, which must take account of the history and current events, science and ethics, but particularly the role that archaeologists will want to have in the future of the Middle East. They will be willing to negotiate their conditions of scientists and academics with that of cultural mediators, who put at the service of all stakeholders their privileged position of participating observers? Opening, as a category, and more collegial as possible, a direct communication channel with the diplomatic and government institutions, at home and in the host countries. To make sure that the discussion on the archaeological heritage, the locations and events in which it is spoken, acquire also a diplomatic significance; to help, or at least attempt to do so, the peaceful resolution of the political, cultural, civil and humanitarian issues with which we will have to get used to reckon.
In Florence, last 16-17 December, was held the first Strategy-setting Conference of Archaeologists of the Near East (CPAVO:
). At the event, participated several archaeologists of the new generation of whom we said above, which timidly began this cultural revolution of the discipline, also with the support of senior scholars.
To follow up this start, we relaunch the idea of ​​CPAVO as a container for a real debate, open to all members of the scientific community of the archaeologists of the Ancient Near East, also to overcome the practice of skirmishes/statements through the press between the most renown scholars. To reach the establishment of a strategy-setting manifesto, made of shared projects and action strategies, for a step ahead of the many charters of intent and showcase meetings, replete with clichés and stock phrases.
Hoping that this debate among archaeologists can awaken inside them a new intellectual awareness, to serve citizens within public debate, to address the rampant cultural triviality, for example around the issue, as timely as ever, of migration; in Italy as in other Western countries, which have not yet completely dealt with their colonial past.
* All quotes in the text are from this article


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