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Beyond Stone & Bone

The Taliban, Google, and More Mail
by Heather Pringle
April 10, 2009

800px-fountain-pen-nib-fogEach morning, almost without fail when I am at home, I sit down at my computer with a shiny red thermos of coffee, and click on the comments that you have posted over the previous 24 hours.  It’s often just getting light outside, the street is quiet, and my faithful companion, Max the lab, is snoring peacefully in my office.  In that grey time, my favorite part of the work day, I read your eloquent, amusing, enlightening,  and occasionally infuriating comments. 

No writer could ask for a better or more thoughtful readership, and I want to apologize here for not always returning the favor and posting replies.  In my own defense, I’ll only say that your comments sometimes arrive just as I am struggling mightily to meet a tough deadline or am away in the field.  But I want to assure you that I read everything that you leave for me and your fellow readers, and I’d like to thank you heartily for sharing your opinions, passions, and knowledge. 

But let me try to make amends by replying to some recent comments.  I’ve noticed that readers are particularly inspired to write when archaeology intersects with popular culture, and my blog on “Is Google Making Archaeologists Smarter?” generated a lot of comments and personal emails. Livius wondered, for example, whether Nicholas Carr, the author of the original Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,”  “has considered the immense educational value of a flattened knowledge hierarchy.  Until recently, amateurs and aficionados without access to scholarly journals and extensive academic libraries have had to struggle to follow a train of inquiry.”

I agree whole-heartedly with Livius that the internet places an immense amount of scientific and archaeological information at our fingertips, and that this levels in part the playing field for non-academics keen to follow or contribute to the field of archaeology.  But there is a flip side to this.  By democratizing archaeological data—particularly in the form of digital atlases—researchers are potentially handing looters new tools for locating sites with lucrative antiquities.  Clearly archaeologists need to weigh benefits against the potential dangers before posting details on line.     

In reference to “What Will Happen to Ancient Art in the Taliban’s Swat,” Rupa Abdi notes that “It is difficult to believe that the Taliban brand of Islam can dehumanize a person to such an extent—making him insensitive to even the sublimest of art form….”  I share Ms. Abdi’s dismay at this situation but I believe that the Taliban’s particular interpretation of Islam is only one part of the problem.  Taliban supporters are totalitarians and there is a long history of such governments trying to control and rewrite the ancient past, often obliterating inconvenient facts and truths.  One need look no further than Nazi Germany,  where SS leader Heinrich Himmler founded a major research institute,  the Ahnenerbe, to manufacture evidence showing that an ancient mythical master race of blonde-haired,  blue-eyed warriors had coined civilization.  Proof to the contrary was buried or ignored.   I think the Taliban would much prefer that we all forget the Buddhist past in Swat.

Please keep posting your comments. And if you don’t have anything better to do next Thursday night, April 16th, and find yourself in Vancouver,  please join me at the Vancouver Public Library downtown.  I’ll be giving a public reading. 



Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

4 comments for "The Taliban, Google, and More Mail"

  • Reply posted by Beth (April 11, 2009, 3:37 am):

    It’s funny, I was just talking with some other archaeology grad students last night (commiserating over how we hadn’t gotten as much done as we wanted over the semester break) and one of the things we discovered is how much of a crutch Google Books has become; at least half of us use the book search feature when we have the actual book in front of us. How can we not? It’s better than any index!


  • Reply posted by Heather (April 12, 2009, 8:55 am):

    I’m also a huge fan of Google Books, but for a different reason. It essentially places the resources of a very good library right on my desktop and allows me to check out books onscreen to see if they are worth an hour-long trip to the nearest university library to pick up.


  • Reply posted by Mark (April 14, 2009, 12:45 pm):

    I’ve tried using google books for research a couple of times only to be stymied when pages that have footnotes, references, and bibliography haven’t been scanned. So many books are secondary accounts–it is frustrating not to be able to see what the source material is so you can track it down in that most archaic of institutions, a library.

    As for Swat, Pakistan’s government last week approved a law that will enforce the Sharia justice system there. The BBC news website notes that “the contours of that law are still not clear…. The government seems to think that as the Taleban’s demand of Sharia law has been met, the militants will lay down their arms and go home. The Taleban, on the contrary, seem to believe that they have a peace time job of guiding society along the ‘right path’, if not to conquer new frontiers.” Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of Bamiyan.


  • Reply posted by Derry (April 23, 2009, 7:27 am):

    Hi Heather

    Glad to see you are taking some time to doff your cap to the readers – always a good move! Particularly so when there are some Archaeology sites out there (particularly here in the UK) which blog away with not even the chance to comment, let alone be responded to. Not too (2.0?) smart.

    Anyways, while we’re on the topic of sweeping trends affecting how us scholars-of-the-past are doing our work, the longue durée view is represented by a challenging new article in May’s HT.

    In ‘Beyond the Great Divide’, Harvard history professor Daniel Lord Smail poses some challenging questions of both the history and archaeology professions – namely, why do they still exist as seperate subjects?

    Its a good read, and I’d be interested to hear your views, coming from ‘the other side’ of the debate.

    Available free now at

    Keep up the good work!!




About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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