As a subscriber of the University of York’s round-up of Mesolithic archaeological news, in the form of the Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter, it was with surprise and sadness that I came across a first hand account of the earthquake that hit Nepal in late April of this year. University of York researchers Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton were a part of an archaeological field team conducting work in Nepal, based at the Himalayan village of Langtang, which is north of the Kathmandu valley, when the main 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country on Saturday 25th of April.
The field team had left their base at village of Langtang a mere two hours before the quake struck and managed to survive the initial event and the aftershocks with the help of their guides. Unfortunately, after an arduous and nerve-wracking trek to an evacuation point, they heard the news that the village of Langtang had been destroyed by the avalanches and subsequent landslides as a result of the initial quake and the aftershocks. The small population had been almost entirely killed, with almost every building standing having been flattened from the force of the landslide (see BBC, Reuters & Nepali Times).
Hayley and Emma are helping to raise funds via their Just Giving webpage for the Langtang Survivors Fund, which will go directly towards those who survived the quake and helped guide Hayley, Emma and others on the trek to safety, to help re-build their lives after losing family, friends, their homes and their way of life. The Nepal earthquake, called Gorkha, that rocked the country and surrounding areas at the end of April of this year, have devastated the Himalayan country. The main quake and its after shocks, which have continued into May, have killed many in the country (current estimates are at over 7,000 individuals, with many more injured) and has left both the population and its many villages, towns and cities in dire straits and in need of medical aid, food and shelter.
Langtang and Himalayan Culture
The small village of Langtang, in the Bagmati zone in northern Nepal, sits within a national park of some splendour, acting as a starting point for tourists to explore the Himalayan mountain range in the north of Nepal. Home to around 540 people, the village was a popular destination for tourists visiting the country and hoping to get a glance of the Himalayan mountain range and the Nepalese way of life. The village catered for the tourists by having almost 55 places to stay, with many of these hotels being family ran business which catered for the guests. The Himalayan mountain range is home to a delicate ecosystem and the range has managed to shape the cultures in the countries that share them profoundly, both in their religious worldview (the peaks being sacred to Buddhism and Hinduism) and in their adaptive lifestyle to a harsh environment.
Home to the highest peak on earth, Mount Everest, the Himalayans have also been an area of intense interest to explorers from around the world for decades. An area of outstanding beauty, it is also an area of tense international pressure with both the countries bordering the Peoples Republic of China’s eastern border and the abuse of the mountain guides (normally the Sherpa people drawn from the upper Himalayan range) causing international ire. For instance, Tibet, home of the exiled Dalai Lama, is host to many Buddhist monasteries which have seen a relatively severe clampdown on by Chinese authorities following the 1959 Tibetan uprising starting in the capital of Lhasa. As such the value of cultural heritage is richly viewed as having an important part to play in the formation of identity for the countries that share the Himalayan mountain range.
Since the earthquake, landslides and the subsequent and enormous damage done to villages like Langtang and cities such as Kathmandu, there have been reports of artefact and heritage looting in Nepal. The Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) organisation have highlighted the effect that the selling of artefacts after the earthquake helps to further strip the identity and national heritage of the country and urges individuals and organisations not to buy these artefacts. Nepal has suffered greatly from the natural disaster, as it is a country that relies heavily on tourism and it has been hit hard by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks. It is hoped that the sale of its richly historical artefacts, although for reasons understandable, slowly trickles to an end in order to help rebuild the parts of the country affected. As SAFE highlight, the cultural heritage of a country is a non-renewable resource. Nepal relies on both its natural beauty and its rich history and culture for its economy. To destroy that would be to wound it twice.
Palmyra: Blood on the Land
In other news the extremist group Islamic State (otherwise known as Da’ish, Da’eesh ISIS, ISIL) have recently taken the city of Palmyra in Syria from the hands of Syria’s ruler Bashar Al-Assad’s army, taking both the infamous Tadmor prison and the ancient city of Palmyra itself in the bargain. The modern town of Palmyra lies on a strategically important location between the capital of Damascus and the eastern city of Deir al-Zeir (BBC), and represents an important symbolic gain in a country where Palmyra is held up as a UNESCO world heritage site of international importance. Furthermore it is close to oil and gas fields which help supply the western cities still under control by Al-Assad. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has consistently reported on the conflict in Syria, both on the appallingly violence employed by each of the factions fighting in the country.
Born out of the 2010-2011 Arabic Spring demonstrations across north Africa and the Middle East, the ongoing Syrian Civil War has led to a fragmentation of both Syria and Iraq, where numerous factions fight a bloody, tense long game of attrition. Since the start of the civil war there is now currently a total of 7.6 million people who have been displaced within Syria, 220,000 killed since the start of the violence, and a further 3.9 million Syrians living as refugees in neighbouring countries (source).
The so-called Islamic State, a self-styled Islamic caliphate, has become one of the prime contenders for power in the region. Controlling almost 50% of the land mass of Syria (but not some of major eastern cities) and large chunks of Iraq, the group has thrived on its propaganda to spread its message of intolerance and violence. Chief among these are the both the show and summary executions carried out in the provinces it controls and, secondly, its wanton destruction of the heritage. This destruction and the selling of looted artefacts, largely of pre-Islamic art and architecture (particularly any images of the body which the group claims is idolatry) and Shia mosques (the Shrine of Jonah/Mosque of Yunis in Nineveh, for example), is justified by their strict adherence to their view of Sunni Islam.
It is this destruction of heritage that has many worried in the world as the group currently controls Palmyra. Already news has filtered in of the possible destruction of the 1st century lion (Al-Assad name, the incumbent leader of Syria, means Lion in arabic) and of a bloody retribution in the form of executions of police and army forces and civilians throughout the modern and ancient city. This follows IS’s form from previous takeovers of cultural heritage sites, such as the unique archaeological sites of Nimrud and Hatra, where they have actively destroyed large parts of the above-ground sites.
There has also been recent news regarding the destruction of a vitally important Mosul Central Library in the Iraq, following the desecration of the main museum. There is a stark difficulty in attaining reliable sources within IS controlled territory however, as the group fiercely control what and how they show their effect on both the population and territories under their control. What is clear however is that Islamic State profit hugely by the selling of stolen antiquities on the black market, which helps fund their campaign of terror and slaughter.
It is worth pointing out here the difficulties in finding reliable sources within Syria on the cultural heritage destruction currently taking place throughout the country. Nor is it just IS who are carrying out the looting and destruction on heritage sites and museums in Syria, but also parts of the Syrian army and other factions fighting in the country. I advise readers who want to keep informed and up to date to check out Sam Hardy’s blog Conflict Heritage, where many of his posts explicitly detail what is known and what is unknown about the situation in both Palmyra and Syria at large. This post is a good start.
Yet it is not just heritage that faces the wrath of the numerous factions fighting in Syria and Iraq. Medécins Sans Frontiéres (MSF, otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders), an impartial independent organisation that helps medical aid where it is most needed, have repeatedly warned of the violence that medical staff in the country face, both from the government and from the opposition forces. This is partly targeted attacks against medical staff and civilians. Operating in clandestine situations, the organisation and it’s staff have also faced sustained violence and intimidation, even whilst trying to give aid to individuals who need it.
The role of the archaeologist in the field, either during commercial (or CRM) work or during research fieldwork is primarily to collect data, often through a combination of surveying, excavation and/or collating samples for analysis. The role of academic fieldwork where the pace can, at times, be more relaxed, also allows for a greater integration into the everyday life of the people who you may be based with or around. Although there is a caveat to this in the fact that some fieldwork takes place in remote, inaccessible locations, a good many field work projects could only take place with the help, aid and friendship of various organisations and individuals.
As Hayley and Emma attest in their vivid recollection of quake, this was the case at Langtang. It was with the help and dedication of their hosts in Nepal that they have had many succesful seasons of fieldwork at Langtang and that they, and their co-workers, had become deeply involved with life at Langtang. This has involved getting to know the guides personally and meeting their extended family members, alongside taking an active interest within the daily life at Langtang.
Palmyra represents the possible (until there is firm evidence of destruction this website will not indulge in becoming a mouthpiece of propaganda) destruction of heritage that plays a vitally important part in the identity and self of sense in Syria. As a BBC article highlights that:
“it must be remembered that there are rarely mutually exclusive choices here. The loss of Syria’s cultural heritage represents the loss of far more than some tourist attractions – it is the loss of connection between multiple generations” (source).
Further to this the repercussions of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the lack of any in-depth will by international partners to aid and stabilize the countries, could have serious geopolitical consequences on the world stage amongst the international community.
As archaeologists we know that the past and the present are intimately linked by cultural bonds and values that help transcend history, and help inform identity and actions today. As such, and as a discipline, we would be remiss to conduct our fieldwork without knowledge of the environment in which we work. Finally, we must ask ourselves what is heritage without the people?
- The Just Giving page for the Langtang Survivors Fund, and the first hand account of the devastation, can be found here. Donations are still welcome. The funds raised by Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton are to be given to the Community Action Nepal charity, who are based in Kathmandu, in memory of the many friends that both Hayley and Emma made at the village of Langtang during their fieldwork seasons. The UK-based Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), who bring together 13 charities, has also launched an appeal. You find out more and donate here.
- Medicéns Sans Frontiéres help distribute and organise medical aid around the world, particularly in hard to reach areas. They often operate in situations deemed too dangerous by many aid organisations. The organisation is impartial, neutral and independent, and helps respond to both natural and man-made disasters. They regularly operate in dangerous climates where other aid organisations will not work in and have been instrumental in helping to contain the recent Ebola outbreak in parts of western Africa. You can help support their important work here.
- The Mesolithic Miscellany site started out as a journal although this has somewhat petered out within recent years – back editions of the journal are available on their website however. The Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter is very active though and advertises recently published articles, edited volumes or books on Mesolithic archaeology. You can subscribe for free here.
- The Saving Antiquities for Everyone organisation homepage can be found here. The non-profit organisation helps highlight cultural destruction from around the globe and carry out both research and fieldwork. The wide range of the campaigns that it carries out, in places such as Haiti and Kashgar alongside general advocacy, can be found here.
- Conflict Antiquities, a blog ran by Dr Sam Hardy, regularly provides accurate information on the destruction carried out by IS and the various factions fighting in Syria and Iraq. The site also thoroughly documents examples of conflict antiquities and cultural destruction from around the world.