Article excerpt

In recent weeks it has been difficult to escape the outcry against the Afghan Taliban for their destruction of the artefacts of another culture and tradition. Tolerance of diversity has always been the position of this journal and we share the profound rage at such forms of extremism that destroy the valued legacy of other cultures. We deplore the loss of the Great Buddha statues at Bamiyan (see FIGURE 1), symbols of the the astonishing and hugely important international character of Afghanistan, the crossroads of Asia in ancient times. With these sculptures it is likely that a great quantity of smaller images, kept mostly in the Kabul Museum and elsewhere, and already terribly damaged, were also destroyed (FIGURE 2). ANTIQUITY has taken care to report and condemn destruction of antiquity where and when it has taken place (e.g. Chapman 1994).


At another level, iconoclasm has always existed, and it is the fate of most material manifestations of art that they will rarely survive. Iconoclasm is not just a product of the extreme versions of modern religions but of many dominant cultures and cultural practices of the past. The most famous case is the Byzantine destruction of images, whence the term iconoclasm derives. And it is often in the destruction of human identity, often linked to the human person, and by extension to figurative material culture, that such activity has been most energetic. In Britain, our own religious statuary has suffered under the hands of Reformation and Cromwellian forces. Great cathedrals such as Ely, close to our editorial offices, are mere scaffolding, albeit beautiful scaffolding, that once displayed icons which suffered a Taliban fate. How many ancient statues still carry intact the face of the original person? How many heads of classical statues are still in place on their original body? Belgiorno (2000:49) writes that `It is true that the Vatican collections were increased during the Renaissance period, but it is also undeniable that most of the marble used in architecture, sculpture and decoration of ancient buildings of the Roman period was destroyed during the rule of [Pope] Sisto V and re-used in building material. During all the centuries of papacy government most of the ancient marbles and sculpture found all over Rome perished in the furnace to make lime and produce plaster.' Was not the same fate under way for the Elgin Marbles on the Parthenon of Athens two centuries ago, before their contentious removal to the British Museum?

Much has been written in theoretical archaeology about societies deploying the past to current ends -- e.g. the concepts of Time Regained and Hero Worship -- but the concepts are not perhaps developed enough into the fact that the extreme deployment of the past is its negation. Only a small sample of the past survives the process of conscious and unconscious destruction. Such destruction is a frequent accompaniment of state-organized societies, but recent work we have personally undertaken in Neolithic Malta suggests that deliberate destruction of earlier human images also took place in less hierarchical societies in the 4th-3rd millennia BC. However, our small figurine, smashed over the burials it once guarded, is insignificant in comparison to the tragedy of Easter week this year. We hear, in horror, of the deliberate vandalism at the World Heritage site of Mnajdra, one of the most fabulous prehistoric temples of Malta. It seems that some 60 stones and megaliths of the temple were dislodged by local vandals, possibly bird trappers who had been ordered to remove illegal hunting hides from the immediate area. Whatever the motive, the appalling damage to the temple is all the more tragic because it is utterly mindless in the context of a sophisticated place like Malta. However, the motive factor behind iconoclasm is always incomprehensible to those outside the immediate sphere of experience. We can condemn the extremists of the present more effectively if we recognize that our own past contains such destructions, and that sensitivity to the value of both our own past and that of other cultures has only slowly emerged in our society. …