New York Times Comment on the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles

There’s a long form article in the New York Times about the Digital Archaeology Institute’s reconstruction of the Elgin Marbles. The author reached out to me for a quote regarding the initiative–I’ve taught about their efforts regarding the triumphal arch in Syria, so I felt comfortable contributing. They used a short quote, and I thought I’d include the longer comment here, as below:

3D replicas can be exciting and useful tools for archaeologists and the public to use for commemoration and to think with. Oxford’s Institute for Digital Archaeology’s previous endeavour, the 3D modelling and reconstruction of the triumphal arch from Palmyra, has been heavily criticised by archaeologists who were concerned with the funding, symbolism, lack of public consultation, and general disconnect from critical thinking by the creators of the model. Archaeologist Dr Zena Kamash from Royal Holloway, led an intervention while the model was located in Trafalgar Square. She and a team of students invited responses on postcards from visitors from the site; these responses showed the alienation of the 3D model, which was placed in a colonial setting as a proxy for British nationalism. 

I would have similar questions regarding the Oxford’s Institute for Digital Archaeology’s new project, that of replicating the Parthenon Models. Who is asking for this replication? What population does this replication serve? What are the political implications of such a pursuit? Is there a way we could be using the technology to focus on and reveal the people who created the Parthenon, rather than mechanically reproducing previous art? The repatriation of artefacts from colonial institutions to indigenous communities is an immediate and essential necessity, and of central concern to an ethical archaeological practice. When artefacts become symbols of nationalism and of state power, we need to be very careful about who we are working with and for, and to what end. 

Interestingly I also received an email lambasting me for my perceived (but incorrect) position of retaining the marbles, quickly followed by another email apologizing for their misperception.

We’ll see how many more adventures in the popular press I get this year….

Manifest Destiny: Colonialism, Archaeology, and…Video Games?

You are the monster.

In her brilliant Story Collider podcast, Uzma Rizvi perfectly captures the rupture of graduate school, when, as she states, it becomes obvious that archaeology is “a colonial, racist, epistemically unjust system of knowledge production” and you ask yourself “how did I get here?” It is a question that archaeologists should be asking themselves every day. How did I get here? And how do I proceed?

It’s a bit of a wobbly path–unstable, uncertain, PROCEED WITH CAUTION black & yellow tape dangling in the wind. And yet, as cautious and de-centering and as sensitive as you can be, you are, often, still the monster. You are investigating the remains of the past, sometimes in another country, sometimes in your back yard, and you are navigating through your own cultural perceptions and the colonialist, racist foundations of your discipline to tell a story that might or might not be “true” or even important. This instability, I think, makes a lot of archaeologists & heritage scholars actually hate archaeology. It is actually not an entirely irrational decision, but I can’t agree. It’s too important.

It’s important that there are archaeologists who carry around the millstones of our own discipline’s past, that we have critical self-awareness and continue to engage anyway. It is our challenge to confront these disciplinary monsters and come away humbled yet still persistent. Because we need to continue to intervene in grandiose narratives, to rub dirt and stone and rubbish into histories that exclude women, indigenous people, people of color, the poor, the “othered” and to remove the props that hold up the crap politicians and power structures who use the past to justify present oppression.

And…guess what? The magical thing is that we can do this through traditional & alternative venues of publication, teaching, public outreach and…video games!

Manifest Destiny is an entry into Ludum Dare, a regular online video game jam wherein participants take on a challenge to create a game alone or with a team in 72 hours. Go ahead, fire it up and have a play and then come back.

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This entry was made by Tara Copplestone and Matt Sanders and is described as “a ‘hack n slash’ with a twist.” The name, Manifest Destiny, is an expansionist impulse to conquer, to colonize, one that is associated with the spread of white settlers across the continental United States in the 19th century.

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You are a towering figure with a cape, crushing tiny people and structures in your path, getting more points for your efficient destruction. And you have a trail of blood behind you. Sounds pretty accurate, right?

The game goes through four levels with different reconstructed cartoon landscapes, each corresponding to a season. You gain points and you gain dominion, partly represented by the devil horns that point out of your head. You also destroy structures and people with death spikes that come out of the ground. It’s not terribly subtle, but neither was Columbus.

Manifest Destiny is an incredibly detailed game for a 72 hour game jam. The music, upbeat but still slightly sinister, turns dire when you find out the truth of it all.

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I tried to play the game a few different ways. Yes, first I blew up all of the structures and people, then I tried just exploring without destruction. Finally I just stood there, and waited through the levels. The result was the same. In this last play-through where I stood and didn’t do anything, I noticed that the small people were at first running toward you, then milling around, then finally would run away from you.

The result is the same in each case–perhaps the only way to win is not to play at all. Though this message might have been reinforced by a different result if the character just choose to do nothing.

A “Learn More” button on the final screen points toward the EUROTAST webpage, which is a slightly unwieldy match, though appreciated. It did make me think that we need more in-depth online resources that are easy to point to that are arranged around current issues. What does archaeology have to teach us about state oppression? What does anthropological study have to say about forms of marriage?

Manifest Destiny is a creative, appreciated intervention that explores game conventions to highlight historic injustices.

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