Wednesday, June 18, 2008

To Dorothy King

Dorothy King is frequently a cogent commentator on matters ancient and modern. But I was unhappy to see her beginning a recent post with:
I sometimes get frustrated with archaeologists who seem to be more worried about preserving every single little broken bit if pot everywhere - and ignore the human cost of war. To some people, the men and women who have given their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have become theoretical statistics.

To suggest that archaeologists ignore the human cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is a serious charge and to use "seem" without providing any specific references is unfair.

For my part, I am not so vain as to think she had anything I've written in mind, but I can't help but personalize my response. As a citizen I can express my horror at the human cost by voting, contributing to political campaigns and expressing my opinion. In doing so I am one voice among millions taking part in our pluralistic democracy. As a parent I can teach my three children to honor the service of the troops while disparaging the appointed leaders who have served them so poorly. I do this in my home and usually wouldn't mention it here.

But as an active field-archaeologist and museum professional with direct experience of and expertise in the losses to world cultural heritage wrought the by the international trade in illicit antiquities, I can focus my writings and advocacy on the deleterious effects of these two wars on archaeological knowledge. That this intellectual loss pales in comparison to the human loss should most often be able to go without saying.

To go a step further, I actually think there is a very strong correlation between a focus on the material consequences of the war in Iraq and an understanding that the predictable human cost was one reason to find a better way. To put this differently, I don't personally know archaeologists who strongly supported the war and one basis for their concern was the inevitable loss of life. I am not suggesting a causal relationship: opinions held as a citizen and opinions held as a professional are distinct, but in this case they seem to have overlapped. Since I take this step on the basis of anecdote and conversation, I can't directly cite my sources.

So, I'll stand up for archaeologists as caring as much as any other group of citizens about the human costs of war. When acting as archaeologists, however, we will speak to what we know best, which is the consequences of war for our chosen profession.

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