Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cultural Heritage: Victimized

We have witnessed countless instances in which cultural property has been the victim of armed conflict: the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, the sacking of the Iraqi museums in 2003, the destruction of the Sufi shrines in Mali in 2012, and of course the looting of artifacts to fund wartime endeavors, which is currently occurring in Syria. The cases in which cultural heritage has been specifically targeted or has been a casualty of conflict are innumerable.  The political clout and economic value of patrimony make it a bull's eye.
But we cannot overlook that cultural heritage also can be a victim during peaceful times, and can be a victim of the nation it represents. This month, a construction company demolished a Maya temple in Noh Mul, an ancient city complex in Belize. The temple was more than two thousand years old, and likely took a thousand years to build from hand-cut limestone; in two days, the temple was reduced to rubble by backhoes and bulldozers.  The temple was the “nearest and handiest source of aggregate” for roads in need of paving.
The owner of the construction company contracted for the road upgrades states that the local landowner gave permission to excavate; apparently material has been taken from the temple mound for over a decade.  He describes the loss of the temple as an “unfortunate incident.”
While Belize has legislation in place to prevent harming of ancient monuments, these statutes are outdated and lack any serious penalty for violators. The deputy prime minister of Gaspar Vaga, who represents the area, has stated that he is “outraged by the wanton destruction,” and wants a full investigation and prosecution of the contractor.
We tend to focus on the destruction of cultural heritage by enemy forces, and the lack of protection provided to such patrimony; we cannot, however, forget that patrimony often is destroyed by the very people it represents.  It does not always take conflict or times of upheaval to victimize patrimony.  Looting of one’s own cultural patrimony is an on-going issue, as citizens see the artifacts in their backyards as a means of income – survival comes first.  The problems in these instances run too deep to simply be fixed by stricter laws and regulations preventing illicit digging and the sale of artifacts.  And in such cases when one chooses to intentionally demolish one’s own heritage? What rules can be put in place—and enforced—to prevent such intentional destruction if the “owner” of the “property” chooses to destroy it?
Originally posted by Sally Johnson on
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