From Croatia to Cape Town: The Future of the World Archaeological Congress

By Kitchen, Willy | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

From Croatia to Cape Town: The Future of the World Archaeological Congress


Kitchen, Willy, Antiquity


... archaeologists and anthropologists are immersed in the evidence of man's inhumanity to man over many time periods and in countless areas of the world . . . It is precisely people such as the archaeologists and anthropologists who should not wish simply to stand aside and condone by inaction

NEAL ASCHERSON (Ucko 1987: viii)

So concluded Neal Ascherson's Foreword to Peter Ucko's account of the first World Archaeological Congress held in Southampton in 1986 (WAC-1). In this same spirit of engagement, the Council of WAC resolved in December 1994 to organize a conference to discuss the specific issues thrown up by events at WAC-3 in New Delhi, with particular reference to the violent and politically motivated destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992. The creation of such a forum for discussion had become necessary owing to the WAC Executive Committee's explicit ban of such discussions on the eve of WAC-3 itself (Colley 1995; Golson 1996; Hassan 1995a; 1995b; Kitchen 1998a; Muralidharan 1994a; 1994b; Navlakha 1994; Ronayne 1995; Sawday 1995; Tierney 1995).

The result was the WAC Inter-Congress on 'The destruction and conservation of cultural property' held on the island of Brac, Croatia, 3-7 May 1998 (Ascherson 1998; Tierney 1998). My aim, in this short report, is to explore how far the Brac Inter-Congress has taken WAC along the road to more principled political engagement, and to identify some of the key debates which lie ahead at its forthcoming Congress to be held in Cape Town in January 1999 (WAC-4). Since the issues involved are quite explicitly political, and WAC's response to the events in New Delhi of central importance, I make no apology for dwelling here upon those papers given in Session 7 entitled 'A closer look at the Ayodhya issue', and the discussions at the Plenary session held on the last afternoon.

Martin Hall, organizer of WAC-4, perhaps summarized the situation best at the Plenary session, observing that when delegates reach South Africa, WAC's political nemesis in 1986, the organization will have come full circle. It was in response to a particular political climate, the cultural boycott of South Africa in the mid 1980s, that WAC came to be formed in the first place. Its Statutes were drafted in response to circumstances pertinent at the time, and the organization was borne up and rightly celebrated through a series of important publications issuing from successful conferences in Southampton and Barquisimeto, Venezuela (the location for WAC-2 in 1990). By the time WAC reached New Delhi, however, a new set of political challenges emerged, with the potential to paralyse the organization as a credible academic forum. It is crucial, therefore, that the opportunity is taken in Cape Town to reinvent WAC so that it is better able to meet such challenges now and in the future (Kitchen 1998a). Without clearer ground-rules first agreed by all participants, principled open exchange will be impossible; as events at New Delhi and Brae have demonstrated.

WAC dissociated itself from the Plenary session held in New Delhi '... because of the manner in which the Session was conducted (which ignored basic procedures, freedom of speech, and the concept of majority rule, and which contradicted the principles on which WAC was based)' (Council Minutes, 3.30 p.m. Sunday 11 December 1994). Amongst other things, events at the Plenary included the physical intimidation of delegates attempting only to express mild views. In Brac, Indian delegates bold enough to deliver papers which questioned the arguments and past actions of some of their colleagues were subjected to deliberate filming by one delegate clearly connected to the Hindu revivalist cause. Whilst clips were also taken of the audience, it escaped no-one that this filming was particularly reserved for three delegates, two Indian secularists and one Pakistani (Tierney 1998). Despite this invidious intimidation, their papers were delivered and, perhaps as a result, two important motions were passed by the Plenary and adopted as WAC policy in the Executive meeting which followed.

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