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Interview with InsSciDE Archaeologist, Pascal Butterlin

Ahead of InsSciDE’s First Open Conference, where Prof. Pascal Butterlin will lead a discovery round table on heritage and science diplomacy, the InsSciDE Expert and Author shares his thoughts on archaeology as a form of diplomacy, the history of archaeological practice, and the relevance of science diplomacy in today’s world.

Pascal, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Can you tell us a bit about your work in the field for InsSciDE?

Working in the field is not possible for the time being in Syria, but in Iraq, we have done some work. The sites where we want to work are very difficult to access, but in 2015, we managed to get a drone over the site Khorsabad, while it was occupied by Daesh. The site has played an important role in the history of archaeology. It was the first site excavated by the French in Iraq in the 19th Century; it was in fact excavated by a diplomat.

Read about the work at Khorsabad here.

Your InsSciDE case study ‘War archaeology and damage assessment’ looks at how archaeological activities in conflict zones can function as diplomatic tools. Could you explain what this means, and how this occurs?

Archaeologists don’t strictly speaking work as diplomats, but they are directly involved in regions where there are conflicts, and they try to have positive effects even in the worst situations. They have to, in some way, discuss and negotiate in order to carry on their work.

So they are not diplomats of course – they are not involved in political matters – but they have a lot to say and to do with regards to scientific matters. The priority is to keep scientific cooperation alive. Of course, not with people politically involved, but with scientists, who are sometimes still working in the field, or are now working in their countries, or have even left their countries – because cooperation is still essential with those who have become refugees and have had to leave their countries.

So it’s by interacting directly with people and institutions that archaeologists can make a difference?

Yes, the idea is to keep scientific cooperation alive even if everything else is temporarily broken. The idea is to help as far as we can; to help create the conditions so that one day, perhaps, exhibitions can resume and archaeologists can continue the work taking place at the sites, even if, for the moment, no one knows what the future will look like. The main question for the archaeologist is to know how they can contribute in a positive way to the protection of heritage, to the protection of scientists, and to creating the conditions for a new future.

Archaeologists are different from other diplomats in that, with regards to heritage matters, we are still involved in some way, and we are civilian people, completely trapped, condemned to be collateral damage. And that’s precisely what the archaeologists don’t want to deal with anymore.

Archaeologists are increasingly involved because they want to protect sites – since nobody protects anything in times of war. In the case of the war in Syria or Iraq, local people wanted to protect their heritage, and archaeologists wanted to help. That’s why they went there.

Have archaeologists had some success in protecting heritage in very difficult situations?

We don’t have the tools so precisely answer this question. But we have a curious Cassandra syndrome: usually archaeologists are the first to say that something is wrong, that a situation looks perilous, and finally when a situation escalates, we can do nothing. We have been like a warning alarm, but no one has heard us. A good example of this is the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the great statues in Afghanistan. They were destroyed just 6 months before the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

Perhaps if we increase recognition of archaeology as a tool for diplomacy, we can overcome this ‘Cassandra syndrome’. If we realise that through archaeology we can create links, we can build bridges, then we can try to prevent the worst from happening.

Yes, and the bridges are there. The problem is that today the bridges are weaker and weaker; it is increasingly difficult to maintain these kinds of relationships. There are many cases in which archaeologists have played an important role in bilateral relations, but political crises have completely changed these kinds of relationships. It’s difficult to assess precisely what the role of archaeology was, because with archaeologists, you’re in, I would say, a different ‘tempo’, a different ‘clock’, to the political agenda.

Archaeologists do a lot of training in the field, but the consequences of this type of operation are long-term. The people who have been trained, in my excavations for example, later became scholars themselves, or responsible for heritage in their own countries – and so the outcomes of these collaborations are only seen 20 or 30 years later.

This is very important to explain clearly – archaeology is a long term investment; its not a short term operation, and that’s increasingly a problem with diplomats and politicians, who often want direct results within a year.

You refer to ‘colonial attitudes’ in your pitch for case study 4.1. To what extent must contemporary archaeologists maintain an awareness of colonial histories and attitudes?

Archaeology in the east has been linked to imperial activities. Many significant excavations were managed by people trained in the colonial system. This means that, especially on the sites which I’ve been excavating [in Syria and Iraq], our countries have huge responsibilities, because we have shared memories and a shared histories together. Looking through the historical lens shows us that it has not all been a beautiful fairy-tale. Fortunately, the ways things were done in the ‘20s or ‘30s are radically different to what we do now, or even did in the ‘80s or ‘90s.

So for Archaeologists today, they have the responsibility to-

The responsibility of the archaeologists of today and of recent years is to create a real partnership, a collaboration, and not a kind of domination of one scientific community over a local people. This is not how archaeological missions take place anymore.

When scientists came during the first half of the century, they were absolutely convinced that modern western science was absolutely superior to local belief-systems, and they thought they had to create the conditions that could lead to modern development – this idea prevailed under both the French and British mandates.

They did train people, and there were beautiful collaborations, but it all took place within a paternalistic framework and point of view. Of course when we work in Syria, and now in Iraq, there is no place for this kind of paternalistic approach. My generation has been trained very differently, and we have different relationships with local people. It is important to create the kind of trust and organisation that can create a genuinely common future.

The InsSciDE Open Conference will offer the opportunity for researchers and practitioners of science diplomacy to interact and exchange ideas and learning. Do you see this as important for both communities? What can be gained through this interaction?

A lot – a lot can be learned from one another. Scientists have been working in a hyper-specialised fields and disciplines; it’s not always easy for them to communicate with others. We feel that increasingly, discussing with those who are politically responsible, and even diplomats, is difficult, because they are not necessarily aware of the way our discipline has evolved. So we have everything to gain by meeting and engaging with one another, because they have an image of war archaeology that might be a bit outdated.

We also have difficulties understanding where the priorities lie for diplomats regarding global challenges. Because their own work has been changing a lot in the last 10 or 20 years, the diplomats we meet today are different to those we met 30 or 40 years ago.

I was trained in a completely different world, I would say. That means especially that for us, to put things very bluntly, 30 years ago, you didn’t have to explain to diplomats why archaeology was important and what it meant. Today there are people who ask you, ‘What’s your use? What’s the point or archaeology?’ And if they ask these kinds of questions – of course there are many who do not – then we have a huge communication problem.

What would you say is responsible for this change of understanding about archaeology?

The training programmes of our political officers and politicians rarely include archaeology. The diplomats who we met 30 or 40 years ago all had classical studies. So this is a question of education, not a question of diplomats. Some of them are genuinely interested by archaeology, but you understand very quickly that they don’t have the kind of training they had 40 years ago. And that can mean that we have to explain things that we didn’t have to previously. We see that with our students, too. Classical studies have been destroyed completely in a lot of countries.

This touches on interdisciplinarity, and the neglect of certain disciplines – we are seeing a trend towards ‘hyper-specialisation’, which means that we are losing the broader knowledge that we had before.

Yes. When Agatha Christie was excavating with her husband in Iraq, there was no problem discussing with Winston Churchill or with this generation. They were living in the same world, so they were perfectly aware of the interest in their work – they were absolutely convinced that It was worth doing. Our diplomats in France, some are genuinely interested, but to understand what we are doing is another matter.

To conclude, Pascal, how important in your view is science diplomacy in today’s world?

Science diplomacy has a lot of things to say and to do; in a world which has more and more walls and is closing very quickly, science diplomacy is one of the ways we can keep some doors open. I am reminded of one of the mottos at the French institute in Beirut: ‘pour que l’orient reste proche’.