Destruction of a Common Heritage: The Archaeology of War in Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina

Article excerpt

The civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the largest conflict in Europe for half a century, is more than incidentally about objects from the past and proofs of past possession. Here is a report on some of the specifics and some of the generalities.

A cultural landscape at war

The war in Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina is a war about cultural identity and traditions. While the aims of the war are couched in terms of ethnicity and nationalism, the struggles are advanced through enforced changes in settlement pattern, language, religion and landscape. Destruction of cities, towns, villages, hamlets and farms proceeds relentlessly, with special attention paid to urban settlements where multi-ethnic community living is more deeply rooted than in the more homogenous, if still mixed, rural settlements. Forced migrations lead large numbers of refugees to leave the region, settle in empty shells of former settlements or occupy a new class of monument -- the camp (for a distribution map, see Ihsanoglu 1993: 41). The differentiation of Serbian from Croatian is sponsored by the respective Academies of Science, whose specialist linguistic commissions are inventing parallel sets of divergent vocabulary to replace the previously common language of Serbo-Croat. Forced conversions between Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic religious affiliations are not as common as the targeting of destruction on to religious monuments. The result of these interlinked policies is as rapid a change in the cultural landscape as has ever been witnessed in the west Balkans.

The physical and social landscape of a region is more than a palimpsest of long-term settlement features; it is an imprint of community action, structure and power on places. The significance of place in the landscape is related to place-value created by individuals and groups through associations with deeds of the past -- whether heroic and transient or commonplace and repeated. Time is captured through persistence of cultural form, in material culture of all kinds. While monumental architecture may be concerned with elites wishing to symbolize the differences between communities, the material culture that is found at the household level -- whether in pottery-making, the brewing of sljivovica (plum brandy) or in techniques of carpentry and wooden decoration -- emphasizes the common strands in the heritage of Serbs, Croats and Muslims living in the west Balkans. Of course, the same ethics of hospitality and sharing once characterized this communality of non-material culture as well.

Cultural identity in this 'ethnic shatter-belt' is forged through association with the monuments and artefacts of past ancestors, for there was often strong residential and manufacturing continuity in towns and villages from late medieval to modern times. This is all the more true of urban centres, where political power and authority has been underpinned by specifically ethnic forms of urban construction and planning. The identity of place is reinforced by the linguistic double-meaning of the word narod as both 'nation' and 'people'. The twin signification links place-value and ancestors to ethnic affiliations in a matrix always enriched by religion. In such a landscape, heavy with ancestral symbolism, a war could hardly be anything but a question of culture.

In a cultural war, the conquest of territories and the 'ethnic cleansing' of settlements is insufficient. Nothing less than the destruction of past historical identities is needed. If the identities between past nations and their landscapes are best symbolized by their monuments, it is these monuments which have been prime targets in this cultural war. Mosques for Serbs and Croats, Orthodox churches for Muslims and Croats, Catholic monasteries for Serbs and Muslims -- each monumental symbol fatally attracts the cultural warriors. Designation of a building for UNESCO Protection marks out buildings for special destruction. Even the reduction of standing monuments to rubble may not be sufficient: Povrzanovi (1993) refers to instances in newly-conquered Serbian territory where even ruined Catholic churches are an affront to Serbian settlers. …