Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


   "I enter the church choked with the cares of the world. The
   glorious colours attract my sight like a flowering meadow, and
   the glory of God steals imperceptibly into my soul"
   St John of Damascus; 8th century A.D.

Washington Cathedral, DC, otherwise the National Shrine, is a magnificent building 517 feet long, constructed (by private subscriptions) between 1907 and 1990, and dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. It is thoroughly medieval as well as thoroughly modern--a true celebration of past and present. It has black and white marble floors, lofty columns, stained glass windows and bright blue, red and gold mosaics on the walls; it also features a Space Window containing a piece of rock from the moon, and an effigy of Darth Vader on the north-west tower (children being among its designers). Walking into this cathedral has no ersatz feel--it is more like paying a visit to the springtime of Christianity, entering a brand new duomo in 6th century Rome, Ravenna or Constantinople, and--at 7 am on a Sunday morning--full of incense and chant and more worshippers than tourists.

Surrounding the cathedral is the campus of the Catholic University where another great celebration of past and present--and future--the Fifth World Archaeology Congress was held in June 2003. Attended by 1300 participants from 75 countries, the conference featured 560 papers given in 20 parallel sessions (--sometimes too many to attract a quorum). Most speakers concerned themselves with solving the puzzles of the past, but many pitched at the problems of defining and understanding "heritage"--the appreciation and use of the material past today. Some even looked to the future: the possibility of archaeological surveys on Mars--(something that has always appealed to me, I confess, since reading C S Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet).

Like UNESCO, WAC has a reputation for favouring the disadvantaged and dispossessed which can make reactionaries nervous. Old codgers leafing through the voluminous programme could be heard muttering "yes, yes, very worthy, but is it archaeology?" The prospect afforded by the titles of some talks might well allow codgerly feelings to rise to the surface, but they are often disarmed in delivery, even in that most academically vulnerable of topics, cultural resource management. Take Johannes Franz's interpretation and presentation of a pre-Columbian cemetery at Malacatoya in Nicaragua. Building a museum there to house artefacts and stimulate tourism had brought little sustenance to the very poor (who had lived by looting the cemetery), and prompted Franz to observe that "in Third World countries, the very appreciation of the old itself is another product, imported by cultivated strangers for cultivated strangers". In a new venture of some ingenuity, enormous replicas of the objects found in the graves were erected in a sculpture park next to the museum and local children subsequently took possession of their own inheritance by climbing on the sculptures--and at the same time provided a guarantee of protection better than any police. In another example Tom King showed how assessing the value of cultural resources in native American territories now includes intangibles like the purity of water or the protection of certain vistas. Isn't this really about planning?--of course; but it is also shows how a landscape is valued by people, in prehistory, as now. Native American George Horse Capture explained how such values are to be incorporated into the Smithsonian's National Museum for the American Indian, and other native American, African American and native Australian speakers showed how rich an archaeology is made from taking interpretation beyond analogy into personal experience. Politics may surface from time to time (as also in British archaeology), but can be firmly harnessed to the objective of understanding better what things might mean. This broader archaeology can be said to open one's eyes to a deeper past through a deeper reading of the present.

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