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We must preserve the whole cultural record


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“Abraham’s House” at Ur, with genuine ancient walls in the background (Courtesy C. Brian Rose)

One day in June, A.D. 68, the emperor Nero committed suicide. Shortly thereafter, the Roman Senate ordered the destruction of his images and the empire responded with enthusiasm, toppling his public statues or recarving them to portray someone more politically acceptable.

Such instances of iconoclasm were not uncommon in antiquity, and they are not uncommon today. One could cite the demolition of the colossal cliffside portrait of former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, or even the destruction of Mussolini’s architectural enclosure of the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) in Rome.

I encountered an example of imminent iconoclasm last year during my visit to Ur, in southern Iraq. One of the relatively new landmarks there is the supposed house of the prophet Abraham, a complete fabrication by Saddam Hussein. It was designed to attract Pope John Paul II’s interest in Ur immediately prior to the Vatican’s Jubilee Year in 2000. When I visited the site, I learned that some in the local community wanted to see it torn down, since they regarded it as a component of Saddam’s political propaganda.

The question becomes: Is iconoclasm ever justified? For me, as an archaeologist, there is no excuse for the destruction of cultural property, a definition that I would apply to all of the above examples.

If the offending image is one that has the potential to incite fear, hatred, or prejudice, then it should be moved to a museum and surrounded with explanatory text panels. If a monument is added to an archaeological site, then it becomes part of the history of that site. Even if the reasons for its addition are overtly political, as in the case of Abraham’s house at Ur, I would argue that the monument should continue to stand, albeit with panels that explain the political agenda behind it.

The urge to destroy the visual markers of history is a very old one, and it may always be with us. As archaeologists, however, I hope that we can make a difference in the current discussion of what cultural property is and how it can be protected. We may never be able to temper the passion for destruction, but we can at least situate those passions in historical perspective and ensure that today’s historical evidence will still be here tomorrow.

C. Brian Rose is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

previousPresident's Letter
S/O 2010
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