Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The "cultural heritage" group neurosis 13: Evil. (v)

Tetradrachm of Athens Circa 467-465 BC
photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Nationalism, itself, is an important cultural frame but how it is symbolized in the public mind is quite limited. The national bird of Greece is the Little Owl and that association dates back to early Classical Athens as it moved from tribalism to city state. the associations are numerous: not only was the bird to be commonly found in the area, but it became the bird of Athena the goddess of wisdom and to this day, and in most places, the owl is associated with wisdom. We also think of Athenian philosophers. The coin shown here is the archetypal type of Athens and it is rich in other symbolism: the laurel is a symbol of victory; the crescent (waning) moon was in that phase at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The main purpose of the tetradrachms of Athens was as Nommos, an official currency paid to outsiders in bulk sums; the clear identification of Athens served as a guarantee of weight and the fineness of the silver. These coins were very popular in the Greek world as Athenian silver from mines nearby was of very good quality and the weight of the coins also soon became a very popular standard. Greece consisted of many city states and each one carried its symbols on its coinage to clearly identify the source and to advertise its civic pride: Aegina had the sea turtle; Corinth had Pegasus. Larger states and confederations of cities also had their symbols such as the Boeotian shield. Colonies of Corinth far away, retained the Pegasus of the city for their coins.

This practice of the symbolism of a place continues today. Here, in Alberta, the provincial flower is the wild rose and Alberta licence plates carry the phrase "Wild Rose Country" Alberta's choice of provincial animal is a far lesser adopted symbol: the bighorn sheep. Perhaps wildness and the beauty of the rose is seen as more pertinent to our psyche than a sheep. This is, after all, cattle-country and the old west frowned on sheep farmers. So for the symbols to become popular they have to resonate with the popular mind and cannot be too contrived .

The misnomer of "cultural property", in its objects, lacks any clear symbolism and consists of an amorphous collection of almost everything whereas culture, itself, is highly symbolic. To counteract the lack of psychic connection and symbolism the state becomes imbued with a quasi religious symbolism that is most certainly contrived to serve its own needs and eliminate any problems from the people it claims to serve. This sort of behavior has a very long history:
"Mars presides over wars. To him, when they have determined to engage in battle, they commonly vow those things which they shall take in war. When they have conquered, they sacrifice whatever captured animals may have survived the conflict, and collect the other things into one place. In many states you may see piles of these things heaped up in their consecrated spots; nor does it often happen that any one, disregarding the sanctity of the case, dares either to secrete in his house things captured, or take away those deposited; and the most severe punishment, with torture, has been established for such a deed."
Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, Book 6,18
In my opinion, this practice became adopted after Gaulish troops returned from the Mediterranean campaigns with a lot of gold and other booty. trained to warfare, and very wealthy, the commanders were now free only to compete with each other. The spoils of war produced enough for military expansion and the Druid judges realized that a likely end product of such expansion on a local level could result in tyranny and an end to their own, federational power. No leader could predict which tribe might eventually assume such power under a tyrant, but they had plenty of experience in seeing what had happened with such tyrants they had worked for in the Mediterranean. Syracuse, for example was quick to sell out other Sicilian cities to the Carthaginians for their own protection. As the Druid judges also controlled religious matters, the restrictions on the reuse of captured wealth took on a religious purpose.

The modern practice of repatriation of "cultural property" is an expression of this archetype: the objects are given a manufactured religious fervor; become "sacred" and are controlled by the state. No one is allowed to take anything home and even public access is very limited through museums sanctioned by the state and often dwarfing the individual through impressive architecture and restrictions of access and use. The largest collection of coin images I know of (270,505 to date) that can be freely used for educational purposes is brought to the public, not by any state museum or government but by a collectors coin company: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (CNG). All of the coins they illustrate can (or have been) brought home by collectors around the world. Ironically, some of these same coins coins could be prevented from returning to where they were sold from by U.S. import restrictions in favour of countries that do not allow such free access, even to their own people, let alone the world in general. These concessions are granted in return for political/economic concessions, the identity and details of which are withheld from the American public by law. The greatest number and the most restrictive of these agreements came about when Hilary Clinton was Secretary of State and she took a very active role in their implementation, so I would not expect things to improve in the near future.

Archaeologists who depend on foreign excavation permits were supporters of these import restrictions and made their opinions known during the public comments process, but they were in the minority and about 80% of the responses were against such restrictions and mainly originated with collectors. Few of the public that had any stake in the outcome were interested at all in the issue and the government used the public response process merely to appear to be attentive to stakeholders but gave the issues no consideration whatsoever in any practical sense. All that was really important to them were the undisclosed concessions.

The foreign states gained population support through these restrictions (so they also had (conveniently also for PR) to become public knowledge, and subsequent repatriations whereby such objects served the archetypal purpose of state controlled "booty" recaptured from previous symbolic enemies. Culture really has nothing to do with it, because culture resides in the heads of individual within the cultural frame of nationalism and actually has very few real symbols which are used to represent it.

John's Coydog Community page

No comments:

Post a Comment