Site destruction isn’t just the work of Indiana Jones villains. Looting is not always the most imminent danger to heritage sites. Sometimes those entities we trust most to protect heritage sites are the ones that prove to be the most dangerous. From the construction of a federal building on top of the oldest African and African American Burial Site in New York City, to the Mexican government’s approval of the construction of a Walmart on land near the ancient ruins of Teotihuacán in 2004, governments have acted or been complicit in actions that directly contribute to the destruction of cultural heritage sites for years.
Often, their defense is that whatever is happening, happens in the name of progress, as was the case in Turkey. In the 1990’s, the Turkish government green-lighted the plan to build a dam in the town of Ilisu on the Tigris river. Construction began in 2006 and was reportedly completed this year, though foreign reporters have difficulties covering the site amid controversy and sabotage by local militia groups. Flooding could begin as early as this spring.
This flooding will result in the destruction of upwards of 500 known archaeological sites and the forced relocation of over 70,000 descendants of the people that created these sites. These descendants include ethnic Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians, all minority groups in Turkey. The eventual effects of this dam have been known since it was first proposed in the 1950’s. In 2009, many major European investors pulled out of the project because of the cultural and social destruction that would come from it. Regardless, the Turkish government has pushed the completion of the project and will begin flooding at any time. It would be remiss of me to not mention that the government had a decision to make. They needed more ways to generate energy for the country and the destruction of the area was most certainly seriously considered. Nevertheless, these areas will be unsalvageable after the plain is flooded.
But it is not without some little sliver of silver lining. Some sites, such as Ziyaret Tepe, were able to be excavated to the fullest extent before they were destroyed. Referred to as a salvage excavation, the team, led by Tim Matney, has been extracting as much material and information as physically possible from the site, rather than leave some of the site intact. The team has completed excavation and is reviewing data for additional publication.
What has been released so far reconstructs life in this bustling metropolis. The city served as a frontier guard point got the Assyrian empire for over 300 year as a part of a complex networks of other cities and fortresses. While it was never one the large capital cities, its position on the border allowed it to be a crossroads of sorts and records of prosperous trade can be found. While the Turkish government continues to allow the destruction of this and hundreds of other sites, dedicated scholars and their teams continue with efforts to preserve as much as can be from these sites.
Archaeology as a method of heritage protection may seem like a counter-intuitive solution. In its essence, archaeology is the destruction of a site. Additionally, it is often done by people outside the culture, primarily Westerners entering other cultures and excavating the local history. Groups like the Kurds of the Şırnak Province have plenty of reason to be wary or even outright opposed to this sort of intervention by Western actors, given the history of Western intervention in the East. However, the people of the surrounding communities seem to be embracing the excavation, as without it the materials would be lost forever.
It helps however, that Matney and his team are very aware of the work they are doing and how it impacts the local community, and have been conscientious in keeping as much work and material in area as possible. While it is always preferable that the local community gets to retain control over an important heritage site, the intercession of Western researchers can provide the necessary capital to protect from looting, and in the case of Ilisu, the government.
Development is important and providing water and energy infrastructure are significant aspects of this. But when it is at the expense of an area so rich in culture, the calculus of what is important and what is not in the mind of the state is called into question. When looters are the ones responsible for the destruction, it is simple: stolen goods=money. But for the government, variables like cost, feasibility, and even whose heritage is in danger make it harder to find the explanation and much harder to find a route for advocacy.
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