Decolonization is political action, not an act of historical circumstance.

As an archaeologist who is invested in the project of decolonization, I admit to being wary of its overuse within anthropological discourse to such a degree that it is depoliticized. Decolonization must remain a political project. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang succinctly reminded us in the first issue of the journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society“Decolonization is not a metaphor.” (2012)

Recently The National Archives (UK) Blog posted a piece entitled, “Decolonising Archaeology in Iraq?” by Dr. Juliette Desplat. Whereas I am a big fan of archival research, in particular Dr. Desplat’s ongoing work on making the archive more publicly accessible through her blog posts, I was a bit perturbed by the generous use of the word decolonizing. Decolonization must be protected as a political act. The use of the word as a descriptor is naively violent if used to illustrate the manner by which bureaucracies articulate themselves in the post-colony — those are not acts of decolonization, more often than not they are in their first instances replications of previous power structures. Decolonization must continue to be thought of and contextualized as a mode of political action that, alongside dismantling colonial structures of power, provides the space for the oppressed to occupy equitable power relations. It is about reparations, it is about social justice, it is about equity, and it is about claiming power socially, politically, and psychologically.

My main concern with The National Archives (UK) post was that it was purely descriptive about the colonial archaeologists working in Iraq, their words/letters/notes, and their petulant reluctance to abide by the new rules. With the focus on description, there was a lack of criticality; for example, any mention of Iraqi archaeologists or inspectors reproduced the dismissive tone found ripe in the archive. This was perhaps unintentional, but still problematic and unacceptable. Replicating racialized sterotypes of the other is ethically problematic, and if it is uncritically presented, it continues to travel through citation embedded within other concerns, like that of excavation and artifact movement. This packaged sensibility will continue to be reproduced, for example in Paul Barford’s blog in which he re-presents Desplat’s work under the title “The beginning of the end of excavation archive partage in Iraq.” The reproduction of her work, once again without a critical lens, just continues the cycle of archival reproduction without any sense that such replication could have contemporary consequences if treated without a context or analysis.

The National Archives (UK) post started with the citing of the 1924 Antiquities act which provided quite a bit of latitude for foreign archaeologists to take back materials to the metropole and museums (the Act was written up by Gertrude Bell in 1922 while she was Honorary Director of Antiquities for Iraq). Upon Iraq’s independence (1933) however, the rules changed and archaeologists were no longer permitted to take artifacts out of Iraq and Iraqi inspectors were required on teams. These new rules caused quite a bit of frenzy among archaeologists and their home institutions (like the Oriental Institute and the University of Pennsylvania among others, see FO 371/16923), with memorandums of concern being written to the Foreign Office, and even a veiled threat by Sir Leonard Woolley who “thought it was a strong statement from the Iraqi government, and one that could discourage foreign expeditions to return to the country.” (Desplat 2017)

Unsurprisingly, the archival record posted on the blog makes archaeologists sound like bratty, over privileged school boys who are only interested in their research and antiquities over and beyond the sovereignty of a nation of people. The archival memorandums posted on the blog illustrate the ways colonial epistemic muscle expected itself to continue to work in the postcolony. The clarity of expectations is the most interesting part of the archival material. If the Iraqi’s were going to make all these demands on foreign expeditions then they themselves had to prove their own modernity in order to gain the respect of the colonists. “George Rendel, the Head of the Eastern Department at the Foreign Office, emphasized the ‘serious injury which [the law’s] adoption would obviously occasion to the cause of archaeology in general’. He also thought that ‘the attitude adopted by the Iraqis in this matter [would] be regarded by many as a test of whether Iraq is really a modern and progressive State’ (FO 371/16923).” (Desplat 2017)

Why must Iraqi’s pass a test of modernity to claim their own heritage? This doomed-from-the-start set up if often how patronizing colonialisms find their way into epistemic foundations of archaeological teaching. How many times have I heard, Why should we repatriate these artifacts to [insert post-colony here] if they themselves cannot take care of them?

This blog post is not read in a vacuum, as concerns related to museums and museum collections are not relegated only to archaeologists. On my screen, the tab next to The National Archive post is an interview of Nicholas Mirzoeff by Inês Beleza Barreiros on BUALA. Barreiros does a great job in bringing together some key insights as questions leading Mirzoeff  to outline and clarify his visual activist agenda which he brings to three main points, “empty the museum, decolonize the curriculum and open theory.” I will not expound on all of what these three points entail, but I bring this up just to say that his idea around emptying the museum is literally just that – all expropriated cultural materials should be returned to their appropriate owners. For all those of us involved in repatriation issues and the politics around cultural property, we know it is not that simple nor as easy, even though it should be — and it is also not a new hot button issue or the theory fad of the decade. It is one that communities world wide have been fighting for since archaeologists started taking their things.

Curiously however, although national shifts in excavation regulations in the postcolony are common, as was the case in Iraq, when it comes to indigenous rights and repatriation, there is a particular form of violence that emerges even within the postcolony. The nation state is most anxious and precarious when confronted with indigenous sovereignty; this is true in postcolonial settings, such as in India, as well as in settler colonies such as the United States. The State then, whether a postcolonial or a settler colony, responds with such violence toward indigenous interests that it permeates all forms of interaction, from military action to scientific research.

I was reminded of the violence of science in a recent book by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh entitled, Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits, in a passage that brought tears to my eyes and profoundly disturbed me, “In his final days, the last Yana Indian begged that his body be respectfully buried. Instead, Ishi’s museum friends dissected him “for science,” shipping his brain to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It sat on a storage shelf for decades in a jar of formaldehyde.” (2017: 14)

This is what makes decolonization imperative and necessarily political. It is not just about a blog post that should not have used the word decolonising in it’s title. It is about recognizing, acknowledging and witnessing the violence that decolonization is a response to. Decolonization is not historical circumstance, it is and must be understood and protected as a political act.

NOTE: I would like to acknowledge and appreciate Morag Kersel for bringing Desplat’s blog post to my attention. I would also like to restate that I think Dr. Desplat’s archival blogging is fantastic, it just needs to be allowed to be more critical. I hope The National Archive (UK) blog can find in itself some allowance for criticality.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.