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Having not posted in an eternity, I thought I’d let a personal gripe motivate me into re-entering the blogosphere. I’m afraid it’s a little bit long but I think it’s important. In a nutshell, I’m concerned that the World Archaeological Congress’s voice with regard to archaeological ethics in conflict situations has been undermined by those whose task it is to support it.

The Issue

Two weeks ago I was at the 6th World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, Ireland and it was a pretty inspirational affair. For those not acquainted with it, it is both a large non-profit NGO with (paid) membership and a four-yearly conference that “seeks to promote interest in the past in all countries, to encourage the development of regionally-based histories and to foster international academic interaction”. This was my first attendance as a delegate and I found it both stimulating and challenging in equal measure. At the end of each conference an open ‘business plenary’ is held where motions can be voted on as advisories, before being submitted to an elected Council and Executive (constituted by a representatives from various global regions and indigenous communities) which will decide whether to accept it as a resolution. The plenary was attended by, in my estimation, about 500 or so of the 1,800 delegates. I was present at the plenary (held on the afternoon of July 4th) in order to support a motion setting up a WAC Internet and Global Communications (IGC) Taskforce. I was not present for the Council and Executive meetings (held later that evening).

One of the motions presented addressed an issue that had been vigorously debated at the conference, viz. the role of archaeologists in conflict situations. Roughly speaking, there are two camps: those (who we might call ‘objectors’) who believe that any collaboration with a military organisation provides tacit support for its aims, and those (who we might call ‘pragmatists’) who feel that, qua archaeologists, we have a duty to support the Hague Convention which specifically calls for the military to solicit expert advice in order to mitigate damage to cultural heritage in their operations. The motion, proposed by Yannis Hamilakis (Uni. Southampton, UK) and seconded by Umberto Albarella (Uni. Sheffield, UK), was in two sections. The first called for WAC to oppose any attack by the US on Iran. The second called for all archaeologists to resist any calls for advice or assistance by any military. As these are very different issues the chair requested the motion be split into two which was accepted by the seconder (the proposer having had to leave to catch a flight). The first motion passed almost unanimously, whereas (perhaps unsurprisingly) the second motion was debated heavily until the seconder requested that it be prefixed with (IIRC) “In specific regard to the motion addressing Iran above:”. The motion passed, but only narrowly, with approximately a third voting both for and against and a further third abstaining. The motions were then passed on to the Council and Executive for a formal decision.

I was therefore surprised to read in Sebastian Heath’s blog the following week that the entire motion in its original form had been passed as a resolution. The same day I came across a New Scientist article reporting the same thing. I contacted Sebastian to ask how he had been informed and he pointed me to Larry Rothfield’s blog which gave the text in full. Larry Rothfield told me that he had picked up on it from the iraqcrisis mailing list on July 9th. This had been posted by Chuck Jones who told me that he had seen it on several listserves, including RAD-ARCH-FORUM, that day and thus forwarded it on to iraqcrisis. The original poster was Yannis.

PRESS RELEASE
Archaeologists urged not to become part of the war planning against Iran

More than a thousand archaeologists from all over the world gathered in Dublin at the end of June to attend the 6th World Archaeological Congress (WAC). WAC is the only archaeological organisation with global elected representation, and one which places particular emphasis on archaeological ethics. (www.worldarchaeologicalcongress.org).

In the final plenary session on Friday 4 July 2008, the delegates passed a resolution which not only opposes any military attack on Iran, but also urges archaeologists not to offer any advice to the military on archaeological issues during the planning of such attack. In the recent past, archaeologists in the USA were approached by the military and were asked to provide expertise and advice on Iranian archaeological sites. The Congress felt that to provide such information at this stage is to offer “cultural credibility and respectability to the military action”. In 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq, some archaeologists both in the USA and the UK were asked to provide (or volunteered) information on sites “to be spared”. Their actions attracted considerably criticism from many of their colleagues.

The text of the resolution is as follows:

“The 6th World Archaeological Congress expresses its strong opposition to any unilateral and unprovoked, covert or overt military action (including air strikes) against Iran by the US government, or by any other government. Such action will have catastrophic consequences for millions of people and will seriously endanger the cultural heritage of Iran and of the Middle East in general. Any differences with Iran (as with any other country) should be resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means.

The Congress also urges its members, all archaeologists and heritage professionals to resist any attempts by the military and governments to be co-opted in any planned military operation, for example by providing advice and expertise to the military on archaeological and cultural heritage matters. Such advice would provide cultural credibility and respectability to the military action. Archaeologists should continue emphasising instead the detrimental consequences of such actions for the people and the heritage of the area, for the past and the present alike. A universal refusal by archaeologists and others would send the message that such a plan is hugely unpopular amongst cultural professionals as well as the wider public”.

CONTACT: Dr Yannis Hamilakis, University of Southampton, co-ordinator, WAC “Archaeologist and War Task Force” (y.hamilakis@soton.ac.uk).

Dr Umberto Albarella, University of Sheffield, (u.albarella@sheffield.ac.uk)

As this was clearly not the text endorsed by the plenary let alone the Council Executive and there was no press release on the WAC website, I contacted the WAC committee on July 15th to ask if the original motion had indeed been formally passed. I received the following response from Claire Smith, President of WAC, cc’d to Yannis and Umberto:

Dear Leif,
The press release is not from WAC.
I can confirm, however, that Yannis Hamiliakis is Chair of the WAC Task Force on Archaeologists and War, and that both Yannis and Umberto are members of WAC.
This resolution was put forward to the Plenary session of WAC-6 and was passed to WAC on for consideration as policy, but was not adopted in full.
The WAC press release is below.  This was an issue of much debate, and I think the WAC press release provides fair coverage of this.
Regards,
Claire Smith, President
The Press Release, dated as July 14th, has since been posted on the WAC website. For reasons of space, I direct you to the website, but the key passage is
A resolution suggesting that no archaeologists or cultural heritage specialists assist the military in planning to protect the cultural heritage was passed by the Plenary session of the WAC-6 Congress for consideration by the World Archaeological Congress Assembly, Council and Executive but was not approved as a formal statement of the position of the organisation as a whole.

Jon Price, of the WAC Exec, also posted a comment on Larry Rothfield’s blog on the 15th to the same effect (i.e. that the original press release did not reflect WAC policy). The official release seemed (to me) to present a fair description both of the issues and what had happened and I replied with my opinion (also cc’ing Yannis and Umberto) that either WAC or the ‘Archaeologists and War’ Task Force should publish a clarification given that the earlier ‘Press Release’ was being widely cited in the press and blogosphere. Yannis has since responded, arguing that a clarification is not necessary as it was released before the results of the Council and Executive had been released and he implies that the distinction between WAC and the plenary are clear. He also noted that despite the negative sentiments expressed in the blogs mentioned above, it had been received favourably by “about a dozen, mostly anti-war blogs.” The New Scientist article was apparently written by a reporter who attended the meeting. If so, she took no note of the plenary/WAC distinction either from the session chair or from Yannis who claims to have told her. (I have offered to post the full text of this email if he desires.)

Is it really such a big deal?

It so happens that I have no particular axe to grind on the military question one way or the other. I personally believe that all archaeologists (like anyone else) must work within the dictates of their own conscience. This can only be done by applying their own ethical framework to the specific context in which they are working. As such, I am certain that the great majority of both objectors and pragmatists are trying to find what can only ever be an imperfect solution to a very difficult set of circumstances. I also believe that WAC is the perfect conference to express strongly held opinions and try to persuade others of their validity and importance. There are, however, a number of reasons why I consider misleading information such as that above to be a very important issue for those who believe in both freedom of discussion and freedom of conscience in archaeology.

  • The first is that WAC is a uniquely multivocal forum in archaeology. It goes out of its way to enable everyone to have a voice, even if that voice runs counter to dominant ethical contexts (cf. the desire by some indigenous communities to restrict traditional knowledge on grounds of age or gender). The WAC congress is important specifically because it does not impose specific political or ideological agendas upon its membership, be they leftist, rightist, western, indigenous, or otherwise. Moves to do so seriously undermine WAC’s function and stymie open debate.
  • WAC is a (non-profit) membership body. It has fee-paying members and thus pronouncements made by WAC can legitimately been seen to represent them. It is extremely important therefore that a) due process is followed in order to reach resolutions, b) that they are properly publicised and c) that WAC’s name is not misappropriated.
  • The internet is notorious for false reporting and establishing the truth is frequently difficult. It is also vastly more powerful as a broadcasting mechanism than any other medium. It is therefore vital to rectify erroneous information as soon as possible.
  • Documents liable to misinterpretation are counterproductive even for those it is intended to help because the inevitable comparison with more verifiable sources (such as the WAC website) is apt to lead to accusations of disingenuousness which may taint the legitimate arguments of others.
  • WAC, as the original Press Release points out, “places particular emphasis on archaeological ethics.” It is critical that its own committees and Task Forces are not seen to be compromised by apparently unethical behaviour.
  • And even though this is not a numbers game, for those who think they are important a ‘yes’ vote of 200 people in room of 500 random attendees from a conference with 1,800 delegates is not by any stretch of the imagination the people’s voice.

Have I just misunderstood?

I would very much like to think that there has been some kind of misunderstanding and that the original emails were simply taken out of context and misinterpreted by others. There is indeed no logical discrepancy between

In the final plenary session on Friday 4 July 2008, the delegates passed a resolution which not only opposes any military attack on Iran, but also urges archaeologists not to offer any advice to the military on archaeological issues during the planning of such attack
and
A resolution suggesting that no archaeologists or cultural heritage specialists assist the military in planning to protect the cultural heritage was passed by the Plenary session of the WAC-6 Congress for consideration by the World Archaeological Congress Assembly, Council and Executive but was not approved as a formal statement of the position of the organisation as a whole.

But i) citation of the original (unamended) motion implying that it was that text that was passed by the open plenary, ii) failure to disambiguate between the plenary and WAC as an organisation, iii) further failure to mention that it had not been approved by the Council and Executive (some 5 days after they had met), and iv) entitling it ‘PRESS RELEASE” and sending it to multiple public mailing lists seems prima facie to be willful misrepresentation. It is of even greater concern that this was posted by the Chair of the WAC ‘Archaeologists and War’ Task Force which, according to the official Press Release, has “an explicit remit to investigate the ethics implications of working with the military”.
WAC is now aware that the earlier Press Release has, at the very least, led to interpretations by the wider media that are totally at odds with WAC’s position and may have undermined it. I very much hope that they (or its issuers) will take steps to rectify that situation in which case I will be delighted to post a link (or the full text) of such clarification as an update to this post. If not, I fear that the WAC 2010 Inter-congress on “Archaeologists, Ethics and Armed Conflict” will be considered by little more than a sham.

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One Comment

  1. I attended WAC and I’d have to agree with you on the sentiments of that resolution and post conference shenanigans. The resolution in itself was poorly worded and framed in such a way as to make it unworkable in a number of countries including my own, Australia.

    Unfortunately this seemed to have been symptomatic of a number of resolutions presented to business plenary and I suspect this had something to do with limited time and rushed timetables.

    FYI, I abstained due to the poor wording and illogical restrictions.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Leif finally posts again with a very thought-provoking article on misrepresentation and whether archaeologists should provide support to the military in conflict situations. It’s quite long, but worth hanging on for, and as archaeologists we need to think about this kind of thing if we are to be taken seriously and have any chance of protecting the cultural heritage of areas under conflict. [...]

  2. By WAC Digital Heritage Working Group « Archaetech on 24 Jul 2008 at 10:31 am

    [...] on digital and communication issues in global archaeology (an area on which I’ve been making my opinion rather clear of late). If you are interested in joining please get in touch with Michael Ashley – [...]

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