Sadly, I am no longer in the vineyards of Burgundy. Rather, I am sitting at home in the heat and humidity of subtropical Australia, waiting for a storm to cool things down. My study leave – the first I have had – was wonderful! I was able to meet a large number of colleagues, new and old, on their own ground. I also visited a great many archaeological and cultural heritage sites in half-a-dozen countries. The thing that made the greatest impression on me (other than the extraordinary friendliness and helpfulness of all the people I worked with) was the similarity of so many of the problems we face around the world in our bids to further our knowledge of the past and conserve archaeological heritage while fulfilling our myriad social, moral and political obligations to the societies in which we work and/or the people whose heritage it is that we study.
Some might say that increasing our knowledge and conserving heritage is a central way in which we fulfil our social obligations as a discipline, and of course they would be right. As most of us know, though, there is (much) more to it than that. How, for example, to respond to the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s pre-/non-Islamic heritage? On the one hand, we have a group of people who have done irreparable damage to what many others, including leaders of a number of Muslim communities, have proclaimed to be world heritage. On the other, we have reports that despite its rhetoric about sacrilegious graven images, the Taliban is actually venting its rage at the West’s refusal to treat with it as a legitimate government, striking at the West by striking at something (ancient Buddhist and other heritage) that it knows is valued by many people in the West and other parts of the world. In this view, the Taliban would hold the West responsible for the damage that has been wrought. Should we be primarily concerned with conserving archaeological heritage in this case, or with more directly helping the large numbers of Afghani civilians said to be suffering cruelly owing to the West’s approach to the Taliban? Should we be more concerned to end the Taliban’s highly discriminatory treatment of women and girls, or to help right the various other wrongs attributed to the group, rather than bother with statues? As archaeologists, we have a duty to protect cultural heritage, but how do we meld our disciplinary duty and our wider social responsibilities in such difficult instances? WAC’s official statement on the matter is presented below, immediately after this editorial.
While the actions of the Taliban are in focus at the moment, generically similar questions arise in Australia, as they do in most parts of the world. Despite Australia’s long history of institutionalized racism on both the Left and Right, and the recent coalescence of a small but vocal racist minority drawn from the authoritarian fringes of both sides of politics, there is nothing now to compare even remotely with the stark conservatism of the Taliban. None the less, archaeologists here spend a great deal of time working to convince Indigenous Australians of the need to conduct archaeological research or undertake heritage management programs at a time when Indigenous people as a group are still dramatically over-represented in gaol, are still significantly under-represented at all levels of the education system and still have health profiles very much inferior to those of non-Indigenous Australians. Little wonder many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians think archaeology and cultural heritage conservation come a long way down their list of problems that need urgent action!
Even so, archaeology continues to be done, and cultural heritage to be managed, in close collaboration with Indigenous people throughout the country. In some cases, this not so much because the Indigenous people in question value archaeology in the way archaeologists do, but rather because they know many non-Indigenous Australians value it, and thus may learn from it and in doing so become more willing to help deliver to Indigenous people the sort of life-chances most Australians take for granted. In other cases, Indigenous Australians and archaeologists/cultural heritage managers are working together closely because the archaeologists have modified their practical and conceptual approaches to study issues in which both they and Indigenous Australians have interests and from which each can gain the benefits they want rather than those the other dictates that they should be satisfied with regardless of their actual human or disciplinary needs.
Encouraging though it is, all this may sound trite to people who have been concerned with archaeology and heritage management for a while, especially if they have been involved with WAC. The fact remains, however, that things change much more slowly than well-known examples of forward-thinking “best practice” would have us believe. Even if the actions of the Taliban are excluded as an extreme worst case, when we look elsewhere around the world there often seem to be as many cases which are slowing (if not actually reversing) our momentum as there are indications of real progress towards just outcomes. The Turkish dams issue discussed again in this volume is one such case, the US court decision about skeletal material and aspects of the Bulgarian situation described elsewhere in the issue are others.
The thing most of these negative cases have in common is that generally speaking it is not archaeologists or heritage managers who are causing the problems any more. Rather it is governments or government agencies which have not caught up with international trends in our field, or ignore such trends even if they are aware of them. This indicates that WAC has to continue enhance its profile by strengthening its membership base, promoting the dissemination of cutting-edge professional knowledge and expert opinion, and, when necessary, taking strong, timely action in concert with other national and international professional bodies. All members should support to this effort by encouraging their colleagues and students to join WAC, attend WAC meetings, and contributing to the Bulletin!