Archaeology, Nationalism, Destruction

Earlier this summer, I was wandering around an “abandoned” 20th century seasonal settlement in the Western Argolid with a few colleagues, and while we spent time documenting the site and looking carefully at the buildings there, we were also using the site as a way to think (until I was attacked by some kind of bug that had gotten into the sleeve of my long-sleeve and started, understandably, to attack me. Then, there was no thought, just sheer panic. I still have scars, but no one on WARP seemed to really care.).


One thing that we discussed was how sites like these fit awkwardly into the dominant archaeological narrative of the Greek nation. The site was not monumental, for example, nor do its buildings and artifact celebrate the something singular, transcendent, and distinctive about either this corner of the Argolid or the Greek world. Moreover, the site did not fit into a clear stage in the settlement in the Greek countryside. It revealed neither progress nor persistence, but irregular adaptation and modification through time. In many ways, the episodes of abandonment and use defied the more linear narrative of archaeological history which celebrated the development of the Greek state, the Greek world, and – broadly speaking – the West over time. We wondered how publishing sites like these might complicate narratives of the past by showing how the present (or at least the recent past) defies the kind of tidy interpretative trajectory presented by the dominant archaeological and national narrative. Maybe attention to sites like these can disrupt some of the more colonial elements of Classical archaeology by recognizing a Greek past that doesn’t necessarily contribute neatly to a sense of shared or common heritage with the West or even the Greek nation as a coherent cultural unit.

Two recent articles have further engaged my thinking about archaeology and the nation (which has begun to feel a bit like an evergreen topic of study for a generation of archaeologists who came of age in the late 20th and early 21st century). A colleague (h/t Grace Erny!) sent a copy of Vasileios Varouchakis’s recent piece in Public Archaeology (2018), titled “Indigenous Archaeologies of Crete, 1878-1913.” Varouchakis considers the rise of a national archaeology during the period when Crete was an independent protectorate of the great powers (which he argued paralleled and anticipated the national archaeology when Crete became part of the Greek state). Instead of just tracing the emergence of archaeological institutions and projects at the state or international level, however, Varouchakis examined role of local communities in creating an indigenous archaeology on the island. In some cases, this involved working closely with archaeologists on projects that represented shared interest like a switch-back path to the cave above Psychro village which provided access for archaeological work as well as the nutrient rich deposits valued as fertilizer. Restaurants and hotels for visitors followed archaeological projects as did the opportunities for paid work for Cretan peasants. The interaction with both foreign and local archaeologists in these “contact zones” remains familiar to anyone working on a foreign project today, but also served as a space for Cretans to learn the value of archaeology and archaeological artifacts to the state and its partners. This knowledge, then, also provided a foundation for acts of resistance among communities on Crete who recognized the value of archaeology in securing attention for their grievances and advancing their cause. Acts of resistance involved damaging archaeological sites intentionally or by simply ignoring them, deliberate acts of looting, and constructing narratives of their landscape that reject the official narrative promoted by the state and foreign archaeologists. This indigenous archaeology, however, was not some autochthonous view of the past, but a dialogue with the official narrative and a constituent force in creating the contemporary archaeological landscape of the island. Varouchakis’s article gleans from the official record the barest glimpses of the interaction between archaeologists and peasants on the island, but it is enough to recognize the dynamic circumstances in which the formal archaeological narrative emerged.

Christopher Jones’s recent article in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies 6 (2018), “Understanding ISIS’s Destruction of Antiquities as a Rejection of Nationalism,” likewise considers archaeology’s key role in constructing the modern nation, by arguing that ISIS’s destruction of archaeological sites was less directed at various communities living in the Middle East (e.g. Christians, Jews, or various Muslim groups) or even some chimerical pagan past ready to reassert itself, but against efforts by secular states across the region to use archaeology to construct national identities independent of religious affiliation and grounded in a Western, colonial past. To make his argument Jones explored the use of the pre-Islamic past in the state propaganda of the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria and demonstrated how ISIS efforts to attack these sites had meaning as part of an explicit counter propaganda campaign.

What’s intriguing in both of these articles is not so much that they argue that archaeology has become part of national narrative, but that resistance to the power of the modern nation state has manifest itself in anti-archaeological ways. On the one hand, this isn’t surprising; but, on the other hand, it reminds me that archaeology is part of a larger modern discourse that exposes it to negotiations and challenges both from within modern view of the world and from without. 


  1. Your commentary makes me wonder about the curious tension between Greece as western heritage and Greece as “other” to those non-Greeks amongst us.


    1. It’s curious because it’s a construct that people wilfully invoke to serve other purposes.
      There’s no curious tension between Roman Britain and France as western heritage and modern Britain and France on the other. Neither does one hear archaeologists wax poetically about the gap and contrast between the remains of a Roman town in Corsica and the lives of modern-day peasants and farmers of the area.


      1. Two quick things, because I think we more or less sorted this out on The Twitters. First, these are constructs invoked for purposes, whether they be “other” or not. This is the point that Varouchakis makes in his article!

        Second, I would gently challenge your view of British and French nationalism as not every bit as rife with curious tensions between Western and “modern” (which I’m taking you mean “contemporary” although I suppose the term modern makes an interesting point as well). For example, consider for example the place of the Irish and the Scots in British history (and the parallel between the Irish and the Greeks of the Ionian Islands) and, in France, the role of immigrants in the construction of a contemporary French identity (The French football team, for example, being the last African team in the men’s World Cup). And, as you know, this is consistently framed around the issue of France’s “Western” identity and whether issues of diversity and nationalism are consistent with a “modern” or contemporary view of the nation.

        As for the Coriscan peasant, this is exactly my point. One needn’t excavate the surface of Greek archaeology (or, I’d argue, Near Eastern archaeology) too deeply to find assertions that somehow the Greek peasant (or settlement in the Greek countryside) has continuity with the ancient world. And, you are right, this is constructed, but it is often constructed through archaeology (although Herzfeld and others have shown that laography has played a key role as well).

        In any event, I suspect we agree more than we disagree about these things, but I think there is some fuzzy “internet” thinking on both of our parts, but I guess that’s what makes these conversations useful and interesting.

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