non-lecture non-notes and the priority of exposing disinformation

Last week, I gave a lecture for held a seminar with released a despondent wail in front of Public Archaeology MA students at the Institute of Archaeology, about Dealing in and with Illicit Antiquities: Understanding and Reducing Cultural Property Crime. Because a lot of the lecture was spent careening through the gradual ups and steep downs of the process of my work, a number of the findings were greatly summarised, or firmly promised then completely forgotten.

Last year, the lecture was an hour of confusing violence followed by an hour of frightening harassment; this year, it swung between self-flagellation and self-pity.

Outsiders (to work on cultural heritage in conflict zones) tend to say that my fieldwork must have been “exciting” (or “interesting”, if they mean it was boring). “My” (colleagues’) students tend to ask if I enjoyed anything at all during an apparently hellish experience. And when one of the students asked me last week, I gave a typically unserious answer.

The experience of the research process did cycle through boring-frustrating-boring-frustrating-frightening-frustrating-frustrating; but it was very enjoyable and very rewarding too. I explored sites, exposed crimes, disproved propaganda; roved from ancient stone cities to defiantly mixed island communities; and had many other memorable moments in the Eastern Mediterranean and days of amnesia in the Balkans…

I really appreciate everyone’s honouring of the request for confidentiality about some of the stuff. I know it may have seemed unnecessary, because I didn’t explicitly name names, but the unnamed persons and their colleagues would’ve known whom I’d meant. Regarding the censored material, I have the evidence and will release it, when everything’s been agreed and prepared. Regarding the private activity, the situation is out of my hands.

The pretty pie charts were from a work-in-progress; as soon as I’ve got a presentable draft on the (il)legality of sources of Cypriot antiquities collections, and on community participation in looting, I’ll upload a preprint here. I do have a postprint on the relationships between conflict, looting, destruction and antiquities policy in the Cyprus Conflict (PDF); and a research blog estimate of the quantity of looting during the intercommunal conflict.

I said that some of the official statistics were bullshit but didn’t explain why. For what it’s worth, they really were bullshit, made-up, fabricated. Official activists guessed the number of cultural objects in a religious building; then, they multiplied that guess by the highest estimate of the number of those buildings in the region; then, they used that (artificially-high) total number of cultural objects as the number of stolen cultural objects.

I also have queued-up drafts on: the politics and ethics of archaeological boycotts and blacklisting, which I discussed in the chapter of my thesis on rescue archaeology and the archaeological boycott in northern Cyprus (PDF); and censorship of professional research into destruction of cultural property.

Propaganda and censorship

As I (hopefully) made clear in the exasperated conclusion of my talk, one of the things that my research really brought home to me was how much is truly known about questioned or denied histories of political violence.

My initial understanding had been that a powerful minority’s propaganda and censorship had brainwashed genuinely unknowing communities into denial of gross human rights abuses. My subsequent confrontations with fascists, activists and professionals revealed that they knew that their denials were false (even after generations of propaganda and censorship); they knew that there had been gross human rights violations; and they actively chose to lie in order to advance their own (personal and/or political) interests.

Documentation of violence against communities and exposure of falsifications of history

Obviously, (I still believe that) novel, independent documentation of violence against community and cultural property is essential to proving the reality of conflicts, rebuilding trust, and re-establishing peaceful, shared community life. However, those projects require secure, long-term funding; and, even if a cultural heritage worker does have a career death wish, that funding will be exceptionally difficult to access.

Moreover, through the talk and over a coffee afterwards, I sorted out something I’d been stuck on for a long time; I reordered my priorities.

Documentation is in one sense a more manageable project, because it is a slow, hard slog that can be conducted relatively independently; but it is a never-ending effort, and enemies of truth can quickly produce alternative but nonetheless false narratives, which advocates of truth can only destroy slowly. Indeed, by treating its targets as professionally incompetent, it gives them the opportunity to feign scholarly behaviour and to refine their propaganda.

A more challenging but more strategic, more effective intervention is exposure. Exposure – not merely of the falsehood of nationalist histories, but of the falsification of nationalist histories – undermines the entire foundations of those propagandists’ platforms for provocation. So, I’m going to prioritise work in which I prove disinformation.

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