Review: Syria – Ancient History Modern Conflict

The Ian Potter Gallery at the University of Melbourne is displaying Syria – Ancient History Modern Conflict until the end of August. I took a look because (no surprise at all) I’m fascinated by old things. But also because of a sense of a need to bear witness to archaeological and preservation work that can no longer happen, and to the destruction and/or illegal sale of Syria’s antiquities.

Detail of a horse’s head.

The passage of time and all it entails has reduced many physical items from the past to tiny bits of almost nothing, unless there is an expert eye to sift stones from potsherds and soil from personal adornments and present them here. It doesn’t seem like much, but how much will be left of places like Aleppo once this war is over? These items survived, and that is something.

Bits and pieces.

The University of Melbourne hasn’t been back to Syria since 2010 to do this work because of the war and they have no way of tracing the whereabouts of items they had discovered and sent to a university in Aleppo. This is unfortunately the very least of Aleppo’s current concerns.

Somethings survive 2000 years intact.

Since 2010, the deliberate targeting of Palmyra reduced it to rubble in minutes. I remember the murder of its defending historian in the news. I know, therefore, no matter the sophistication of the digital recreation featured in this exhibit and the good intentions behind it, something has been lost forever. Yes, the buildings, but also decades of scholarship and understanding – a human relationship to the past. This is cultural theft from Syria, but it makes us all the poorer for it.

Ancient Syrian lamps under the warm spot light on a wintry Melbourne day.

A major (large) feature ‘work’ is a bust of a woman dating to 150 BCE and it is indeed impressive. See below:

Yes, sorry that is a tiny reflected exit sign just below her mouth. Take it as symbolic.

For more about the exhibit and an upcoming symposium on it from the source, here is a link to it. As for me? Well, it is not a ‘blockbuster’ exhibit of overwhelming proportions. It is a poignant survey of how much was saved.

More lamps & the view for scale.

What is emphasised to me is that archaeologists spend an inordinate amount of effort on uncovering the tiniest signs of the past. These potsherds and oil lamps, and tiny bits of metal, and those like them in museums and collections around the world could be all that is physically left of Syria’s ancient history. It is yet another shame heaped upon the wanton deaths and pain of so many. Instead of knowledge there is a wasteland.

Think I’ll use the words investigative & forensic here.

However, it is not of ancient peoples sitting by lamp light, nor of high-born women with pots of  unguents, nor of warriors with their spear tips and arrow heads that I am left thinking about. No, it leads me to consider the work of the digs themselves, which is entirely appropriate, as even the ephemera of this archaeological exhibit is probably worth its own display.

Meticulous measurements of matiere.

What is here of the record of the dig is also historic and captivating. It makes the work of archaeology concrete, and physical, rather than (at least to an outsider like me) romantic or visionary.

These are historical items too.

With the tools used accompanying the artifacts they measured and pieced together, there is both the ancient story and the modern one. Adding to this is the paper work, obsolete visas and passports and other documents from those who undertook the digs, made redundant by the passage of time and war. They are stark reminders (as if we needed them) of the transience of such seemingly certain concepts such as peace, academic pursuits, and the rule of law that enables international research to occur at all.

Even the paperwork is made haunting by current events.

So there is wonder here, and sadness. Yet to visit these items is an acknowledgement that without effort and will (personal, social, political, academic, diplomatic) the past can too easily escape us for ever.

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