Archaeology shock: Expert warns destruction of history makes way for despots and dictators

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Recent events following the police killing of George Floyd in the US have left many nations divided. His death resulted in a wave of black lives matter protests. These soon reached Western Europe, where the protests acted as a springboard for activists to draw attention to controversial statues.

In the UK especially, several statues across the country pay tribute to patrons and wealthy donors from the 18th and 19th centuries.

However, a large portion of these once celebrated figures were involved in the slave trade or were public racists.

Activists demand the statues to be torn down.

Yet, their critics argue that they intend on wiping history clean.

The argument reached a point of no return when Edward Colston’s statue being torn down in Bristol flooded social media.

Colston was a member of the Royal African Company, which transported about 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas.

Western countries have the benefit of their history being rigorously documented in archived journals and national libraries, whether or not statues are removed.

The picture is different, however, in war-torn countries, for example, like in the Middle East.

Here, ancient structures and physical artefacts are often torn down or destroyed for various reasons but had never been documented as having existed in the first place.

This, explained Dr Andrew Petersen, Director of Research in Islamic Archaeology at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, is an extremely damaging occurrence as it can lead to dictators and despots attempting to rewrite whole histories of areas.

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He told “What’s happened in the middle east with the destruction of human life is much worse than the destruction of history.

“But, the loss of physical history is also very dangerous and an important point to think about.

“The problem when you destroy monuments is that that’s it – they’re completely gone forever.

“People’s idea of their history is then changed and can be changed by the government or regime.

“I see archaeology being a form of forensics – it’s all about trying to discover the truth, and it doesn’t matter what you find out; what matters are the stories and things that actually happened in the things you find.

“Without physical clues like monuments and artefacts, you’ll never actually know about past events: It means that dictators can then change the history of a place.

“In places like Iraq and places where the system is fragile you really need some things to hold on to, some continuity of culture to give you an idea of who you are and really to guide you.

“A lot of dictators like to in some way like destroy things because it’s about controlling the past, it means you can control people; we can’t find things out about the present if we’ve not got the past to help us.”


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Religious wars appear to be the main culprit behind the destruction of history.

So-called Islamic State has destroyed myriad monuments across Syria and neighbouring countries.

In Saudi Arabia, King Salman has given the green light for much of the country’s Ottoman past to be bulldozed.

More than 90 percent of the old quarters of the holiest cities of Islam has been razed to make room for a new urban landscape of hotels, shopping centres and apartment blocks.

The intense expansionism and relentless modernisation have transformed sites like Mecca and Medina from cultural and historical hotspots to cities without knowledge of their predecessors.

Although entwined in a complicated mixture of political and economic motivations, Prof Petersen and many others agree that the demolition is also motivated by the ideology of Wahhabi or Salafi Islam – the dominant faith of the reigning Saudi family.

The father of the Wahhabist movement was Muhammad ibn ’Abd al-Wahhab.

He preceded the return of Islam to its earliest origins, in turn attacking the popular practices of worshipping saints and making pilgrimages to tombs and monuments in their memory, advocating the destruction of sacred sites as symbols of idolatry.

These aspects of Wahhabist ideology, now merged with Salafism, lay at the root of the Taliban’s destruction of relics, as well as the so-called Islamic State’s destruction of history across the Middle East.

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