Is the Truth Down There?: Cultural Heritage Conflict and the Politics of Archaeological Authority

Ian Barber

Abstract

The selective pressures and processes of cultural heritage management effectively disinherit some interest groups. Where this occurs in the context of postcolonial or nationalist conflict, the material archaeological record may be referenced to support or reject particular views. The disciplinary assumptions behind the archaeological evidence so produced are not usually contested in judicial contexts. A review of archaeology’s theoretical foundations suggests that this naivety itself may be problematic. A descriptive culture history approach dominated archaeology over the first half of the twentieth century with a strong political appeal to nationalist politics. Subsequently archaeology became concerned with processual explanation and the scientific identification of universal laws of culture, consistent with postwar technological optimism and conformity. A postprocessual archaeology movement from the 1970s has promoted relativism and challenged the singular authority of scientific explanation. Archaeologists caught within this debate disagree over the use of the archaeological record in situations of political conflict. Furthermore, the use of archaeology in the sectarian debate over the Ayodhya birthplace of Rama suggests that the material record of the past can become highly politicized and seemingly irresolvable. Archaeological research is also subject to other blatant and subtle political pressures throughout the world, affecting the nature and interpretation of the record. A system that privileges archaeological information values may be irrelevant also to communities who value and manage their ancestral heritage for customary purposes. Collectively this review of theory and applied knowledge suggests that it is unrealistic to expect that archaeology can authoritatively resolve strident claims and debates about the past. Instead, an important contemporary contribution of archaeology may be its potential to document cultural and historical contradictions and inclusions for the consideration of contemporary groups in conflict.

Keywords

Archaeology; essentialism; relativism; nationalism; politics; Ayodhya

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