April 14, 2007

War and Antiquities

In the latest issue of Archaeology, Kristin M. Romey writes a very thought provoking piece on the question of war and antiquities. The pretext, obviously, is Iraq., but Romey raises much larger questions than merely whether Iraqi anitquities are being adequately protected (they're not, but then, neither are antiquities in Iran, or Central and South America, or India, or the United States, any number of other places for any number of reasons...). If I may paraphrase, I believe the question Romey asks is to what extent should we sacrifice the living to preserve the material culture of the dead?

Now, I've always regarded Ideofact as being a materialist blog (although, given the attention it's shown to religious questions, that's not always apparent). However, material culture is all that lasts. In 200 years, the religious, ideological and political controversies of our day will have passed mercifully into obscurity; the tin foil trays which contained our TV dinners, the plastic spoons and plastic yogurt containers, tires and screw drivers and probably a few intact DVD players and even laptops...

Obviously, we have a duty to preserve this material record. But how far does that duty go? Romey quotes an editorial by Jotham Johnson, the magazine's first editor, on the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Officers, whose responsibility was to ensure that the operations of the U.S. Army in World War Two minimized damage to Europe's cultural heritage. Johnson wrote,

Just as, in the stratification of the pictorial arts, a photograph of a work of art is an echo, a shadow, a reflection--use any metaphor you will--in any case, irrevocably the inferior of the work it represents, so, we submit, on the next rung of the ladder, an original work of art is bound to be inferior to humanity itself. Whether it represents one aspect of humanity or some common experience of mankind, in any context where the protection of a work of art endangers or delays the safety of human lives the human lives must come first.

The [Second World] war cost about seven thousand lives a day. If the total effect of the Monuments and Fine Arts personnel in the European theater was to postpone by so much as one day the end of the carnage, they have on their hands the blood of thousands who might have been spared.

Romey notes in her excellent piece that Johnson's views were denounced by many archaeologists, but I can't quite understand why. The whole point of our material culture is to ensure our survival. Romey notes, in the context of Iraq, that those holding the opposite view have different values, believing:

...that the archaeological and historical monuments and objects are a non-renewable resource, while the Iraqi people are a renewable one, as are the soldiers on the ground.

Somehow, I doubt that the Iraqis or the foreign soldiers feel the same way.

Posted by Ideofact at April 14, 2007 11:33 PM