thinking about archaeology

Archive for May, 2015

Can Chuka Umunna save the Palace of Westminster? Somebody has to

Tidy cartoon CBA

Chuka Umunna, says Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, is “the man Tories fear most”. He’s bright, “an alpha-male politician”, and perhaps “a future candidate for the leadership of the Labour party” (Guardian) – “a potential future leader” (Telegraph). In other words, in five years’ time he could be pulling off what Ed Miliband failed to do, and leading a new UK government in Westminster.

But hang on, apparently he wants Parliament to vacate the palace.

“We should be saying”, he writes in today’s Observer, “it is time for parliament to move out of the relic that is the Palace of Westminster and into a new, modern, accessible site fit for purpose”.

Now, you can read that as a disdain for great architecture and heritage, as Jonathan Jones does. But I like to think it’s the opposite. That what Umunna is really saying, is what Spoilheap sets out in the current edition of British Archaeology.

Today, continues Umunna, is time “for a serious debate about the electoral system, for an elected Senate in place of the outdated House of Lords.” That suggests his dismissal of the Palace of Westminster may have more to do with its traditions, than its crumbling stonework. Elsewhere in the Observer piece he writes, “We must stop looking to the past, and focus on ensuring everyone has a stake in the future.” That is clearly about policies, not heritage.

In his own life, he has said, “I have a really strong sense of my history, my heritage and my different cultures” (his father was Nigerian, his mother is Anglo-Irish). We might reasonably expect him to extend that understanding to the world around him – and not least to the extraordinary thing that is the Palace of Westminster, a world heritage site.

Spoilheap reviews the case for moving the Lords and the Commons out of the palace – and comes down firmly in favour of doing so. This is not driven by politics, but by heritage. To quote Spoilheap:

“In March, Commons speaker John Bercow did the brave thing… If parliament wished to remain in the palace, he said, refurbishment at a cost of at least £3bn was inevitable.”

A report had concluded that the state of the palace was so bad, the only way forward, if it wasn’t to be demolished or left to fall down, was to set up a management body like the Olympic Delivery Authority, and move everyone out. Then the builders could have unrestricted access, and do what was necessary. In the meantime, the Commons could be put into a new temporary building nearby, and the Lords could be accommodated in existing premises.

“The outcome”, says Spoilheap, “would be a seat of government that was cheaper to run, more suited to use, safe, accessible and with a reduced carbon footprint. During the work there would be tremendous heritage opportunities, for research, exhibitions and education. The history and purpose of parliament would be debated. The project would enthuse other historic building schemes, and be an example for sustainable conservation; many craftspeople would gain unique experiences. And the Palace of Westminster would be assured a future.”

“It’s up to parliament. Will it act on a report it commissioned, and honour its electorate? Or will it continue to walk backwards in funny dress, provide snuff for members, endorse bills in Norman French, shout obscure phrases like “Who goes home?”, and generally preserve traditions that do little to encourage efficient democracy or public engagement, while a world heritage site falls down around its ears?”

The palace has got into the state it is, a profound national scandal, because of appalling management, and because its incumbents cared more for traditional fripperies than the buildings in which they have been privileged to serve.

“Considering the age of the Palace of Westminster,” noted a 2012 study, “the 60+ years that have passed since the partial post-war refurbishment, the long-term under-investment in the fabric and the intensive use to which the Palace is put, it is remarkable that it continues to function.”

You can read the whole Spoilheap column in the May/June edition of British Archaeology. If your name is Chuka Umunna, and you can’t find a copy, let me know, and I’ll see you get one. A functioning parliament is, after all, what you rightly want.


Festival of Archaeology 2015

Salisbury west front

I’m busy with the next edition of British Archaeology, which again will have an extraordinary range of interesting stories, thanks to the curious things archaeologists get up to. One topic we will naturally be covering is the UK-wide Festival of Archaeology, now in its 25th year, which runs from July 11 to July 26. I’ll be at Salisbury Museum’s festival to chair archaeologists talking about their discoveries, so if you’re nearby, you’ll find us in a marquee on the lawn outside the cathedral!

object life

Democracy, or brute force? Guess who wins in the end

I thought again of the British Museum’s Assyrian carvings as I voted on Thursday morning, explaining to my daughter as we walked back home why I had folded the paper. A ballot is secret, I said. Can you vote lots of times, she asked, like the X-Factor? No, only once. (Our discussion backfired a bit when she got to school, and her classmates confused her by telling her how their parents were voting. Who will yours vote for?)

My constituency unhesitatingly returned its sitting candidate, and my personal vote was less of a force and more of a thrilling affirmation of the democratic process. Later in the day, when I’m looking at an Assyrian frieze in the BM, I think, it’s no wonder powerful minorities in parts of Western Asia are uncomfortable with democracy. They have so much to lose.

Islamic State can destroy impressive stuff like big stone carvings, but they can’t erase the record. What they smash on their videos will all have been well documented. And as long as we have a free democracy here in Britain, the BM’s collection will continue to tell its stories.

reed boatLike this one. Helmeted soldiers terrorise Iraq’s southern river marshes, in panels from a palace in Nineveh, around 630BC. Men flee a reed boat, trying to escape on to a floating village where men and women hide while a headless body drifts by. The soldiers parade in front of date palms with booty and captives.

floating bodyvictorsOr this. Archers attack a town around 700BC, the angle of their fire rising with proximity to the walls, evoking the distances involved. Victorious, they lead manacled captives to execution, while women and children watch. The slabs themselves are blackened by fire, the boastful destroyed.




In March, Jane Moon, excavating in Iraq, posted a message on the London Society of Antiquaries website (accessible only to fellows of the society). “Tragic as it all is,” she says, “on the bottom line we have the records of the things that were broken, so there is no question of ‘history being erased’, whatever Da’esh claim.”

She asked her Iraqi colleagues what they needed most from overseas scholars. They replied, “More fieldwork, more participation, more international engagement – get some others to come and dig here too!”

“There are so many more things to find to fill up the museums and be proud of,” says Moon, “and huge areas safe to work in and rich in sites. We can do more than just express outrage.”

Nimrud: Battle ignorance and brutality with education and sharing

IS Nimrud 1

Before I wrote about the British Museum’s Assyrian galleries, Islamic State released shocking footage of ultimate vandalism at Nimrud (the images here are screen grabs). It shows men using power tools and large amounts of dynamite to destroy classic and important examples of the type of works in the BM, and other museums, that had remained in situ at the world heritage site. Martin Bailey in the Art Newspaper calls it “the worst case of deliberate destruction of an archaeological site in living memory”.

The actions, and the way they are filmed and edited (including carefully selected slow-motion segments) are clearly designed to upset the likes of us who care about these things. International reaction to earlier destruction had shown the world cares. So IS knows it’s onto a winner, and lays on fresh destruction – apparently with the help of former media students.

IS Nimrud 2

The obvious and necessary way to stop this is to stop IS. But there is another process that needs to occur, with more long term significance. We must share our enthusiasm and understanding of ancient cultures with everyone, and perhaps especially with those people who geographically and historically “own” them. Collections like the British Museum’s should be part of that process – indeed, the opportunities for learning and engagement are of course one of the things that make good museum collections precious, and more than just tourist draws . Restitution campaigns, however well meaning, can sometimes seriously disrupt such engagement, by creating divisions that foster ignorance.

Jonathan Tubb, keeper of the BM’s Department of the Middle East, has it exactly right as the Art Newspaper reported him saying a few days ago about the situation in Iraq.

“We need to get over the threshold of despair,” he said. “We can do something positive and constructive by preparing for the time when effective government control is restored.”

The BM hopes to work with Iraqi colleagues to train professionals in rescue archaeology and emergency heritage management, and then join them back in Iraq to address the problems on the ground. This is visionary stuff.

Dr Mr Cameron

Times Diary

I read in today’s Times that you apparently believe the Guardian is a paper fit only for burning. I’d like to think the columnist got something wrong – after all, you can’t trust everything you read in the press. But this is The Times. Did you really mean that?

I have a soft spot for the Guardian, and I admit that is not just for the quality of its international reporting. Over the years as an occasional journalist, I have been advised by several Guardian editors, and the paper has accepted more of my pieces than any other (I have had my byline in other titles, including the Mail, Express, Telegraph, and yes, the Times, but none has been as helpful to me).

So if you don’t read the Guardian, Mr Cameron, you are missing most of my informative and sometimes opinionated contributions on heritage and archaeology, and that concerns me! Please try the Guardian again!

Of course it has its silly pieces, and none of us would be surprised to know these tend to lean to the left. But every paper has its silliness. If you based your reading criteria on avoiding extremes in any paper, you’d end up reading none.

So I wonder, Mr Cameron, which papers you do read?

climate change denial

The Telegraph? The paper which recently ran a piece headed, “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”? An online questionnaire was appended, asking, “Has global warming been exaggerated by scientists?” I voted No (you’d have to be out of touch with reality to vote Yes), but then found that of 78,850 votes, less than 5,000 had also been Yes.

The Times, perhaps? The paper in which Melanie Phillips defended torture. “There is a difference between what torturers do”, she wrote, “and what is done by democracies to protect themselves against attack. Tyrannies torture their own people and their enemies… But sometimes it is a moral imperative to use limited ill-treatment if the purpose is to save innocent lives.”

The Independent’s independent view on one of your recent electoral promises (not to raise taxes) was that it was “foolish”. Into the box for winter fires.

Or the Sun? It wants people to vote for you, so perhaps this will pass muster. But you would have to tear out the pages featuring Katie Hopkins calling migrants cockroaches, and other sillinesses.

So which is it, Mr Cameron? Or do you not read any of them?

Yours sincerely

Mike Pitts

PS Please let me know if you’d like to read any of my Guardian pieces, and I would be delighted to supply copies.

Never write off heritage

Second century AD Graeco-Roman temple at Hosn Niha, unchanged since first recorded in the early 19th century. Walls stand to a height of 10m. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Second century AD Graeco-Roman temple at Hosn Niha, unchanged since first recorded in the early 19th century. Walls stand to a height of 10m. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Graeco-Roman settlement at Hosn Niha showing extensive damage from bulldozing and other illegal excavation activities. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Graeco-Roman settlement at Hosn Niha showing extensive damage from bulldozing and other illegal excavation activities. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Ancient sites really are being bulldozed in western Asia, as these shocking images show. Yet as archaeologists know, there is always much more to a landscape than what stands up on it or is visible on the surface. In a new Antiquity paper, Paul Newson and Ruth Young have looked at a severely damaged site in Lebanon and concluded there is still much there of value. Below I have simply reproduced their university press release.

Map of Hosn Niha showing settlement size and areas affected by conflict era activities and recent development. University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Map of Hosn Niha showing settlement size and areas affected by conflict era activities and recent development. University of Leicester/American University of Beirut



Researchers say it is possible to obtain a great deal of original and important information from sites that have suffered badly through conflict

  • Archaeologists from American University of Beirut and University of Leicester describe value of researching conflict-ravaged sites
  • They are investigating Graeco-Roman temple in Lebanon
  • They say sites previously considered too badly damaged by conflict to warrant systematic archaeological investigation

An international archaeological team is investigating an historic site devastated by conflict in Lebanon.

They have demonstrated it is possible to obtain original and important information from heritage sites that have been devastated by conflict.

Working at the Graeco-Roman temple and village site of Hosn Niha, high in the central Biqa’ Valley of Lebanon, the team led by Dr Paul Newson (Department of History and Archaeology, American University of Beirut) and Dr Ruth Young (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester) have described the value of exploring conflict damaged sites in the leading archaeological journal Antiquity.

Dr Newson said: “Shocking recent footage showing apparent damage to world heritage and archaeological sites at Hatra and Nimrud in Iraq include scenes of the bulldozing of irreplaceable buildings.  Aerial photographs of living ancient cities such as Homs and Aleppo in Syria taken before the war have been compared to images from the last few months, and the extent of damage to houses, mosques, and heritage structures is brutal and widespread.

“Of course the human cost in any conflict is the first and highest priority; however, archaeology and heritage are extremely vulnerable to attack and damage during conflict and conflict continues to inflict damage on numerous sites, both large and small, around the world today.“

Dr Young added: “Rather than simply ignoring sites that have been badly damaged by conflict, we have taken on the challenge of investigating a site previously considered too badly damaged by conflict to warrant systematic archaeological investigation.

“Our research at the Graeco-Roman temple and village site of Hosn Niha in Lebanon has shown that with the right methods and questions, it is possible to obtain a great deal of original and important information from sites that have suffered badly through conflict.

“Using a range of up-to-date surface survey methods we were able to answer some important questions about the site.  The first of these was an accurate assessment of site damage, what had been done and where, and the effects of various actions, be it bulldozing or clandestine looting of the site.  Through this exercise, we learned that bulldozing and other damage actions had effectively erased the heart of the settlement, but significantly sized sections of settlement beyond remained quite well preserved. From recording and collecting surface finds from across the settlement area as a whole we were able to begin to understand both the morphology and development history of the settlement.”

The authors suggest the settlement was firmly established by the 1st century CE with a dense core area and more dispersed courtyard dwellings on the periphery.  By the early Islamic period the settlement appears less robust and permanent occupation may have ended for a time.  Surprisingly, they also recovered some evidence for an early medieval re-occupation of the site, perhaps a fortified farmhouse.  They acknowledge the initial results are preliminary and that more research and analysis of the results is on-going.

Hosn Niha, along with many other sites in Lebanon was severely damaged as a consequence of decades of civil war and the associated unruliness and accelerated looting that went with this.

The authors state: “Sites that have been badly damaged by various causes may be disregarded by professionals who consider that their archaeological or heritage potential has been too badly affected to warrant any investigation.  Instead, as demonstrated by the Hosn Niha project, the opposite should become automatic: archaeologists should view conflict-damaged sites as opportunities to gain information and explore sites and regions with new agendas.

“Conflict is impacting the lives of many millions of people, and the archaeology and heritage of many nations.  All conflict-damaged archaeology and heritage can play a vital role as resources to help re-build damaged communities and offer hope of employment and reintegration to those impacted by war.  Being able to offer ways of thinking of how to deal with damaged sites, gain as much information from them, and consider them a valuable resource rather than an inevitable casualty of war is critical to moving forward, and regaining control over land and identity.”

The Central Biqa’ Archaeological Project is based at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon (AUB).  The project has been supported by the Department of Antiquities, Lebanon and the University of Leicester, and is funded by the American University of Beirut through its University Research Board (URB).