Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Grandpa Wen and the Royal medals

You may have seen that Chinese Premier ‘grandpa’ Wen Jiabao has recently been on a visit to the UK.  While he was here, the Royal Society presented him with the Charles II medal for his contribution to science and technology (read about it here).  This was because he has overseen one of the most ambitious programmes of national research investment the world has ever seen.

This got me thinking.  If the Charles II medal is given for contributions to science, what other medals based on past Royals could we be awarding?

The Charles I medal for the most egotistical leader?

The George III medal for the looniest leader?

The Edward VIII medal for leaders who don’t stay in power very long?

The Oliver Cromwell medal for leaders who don’t really want to be leaders but feel they have no choice?

The Aethelred II medal for leaders who just weren’t prepared enough?*

The Harold Harefoot medal for the leader named after the best animal?

Feel free to add your own to the list!

*before anyone tells me, I know that Aethelred’s unfortunate nickname ‘the Unready' actually means ‘ill-councilled’.  It just seemed funnier this way.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Mes Aynak – Ancient monastery vs Copper mine

It seems that the clash between making money and preserving the past is ever present at the moment.  No sooner had we seen an English Council leader threaten to remove archaeological considerations from the planning process (see my blog post here), then I come across a news story from a lot further away, but no less disturbing.

The rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan has recently been brought to life in a fantastic British Museum exhibition, yet it is once again under threat.  Not from war, but from international commercial mining.

Mes Aynak is an important ancient Buddhist monastery, founded in the first Century AD and located high in the mountains of western Afghanistan, on the profitable silk road.  The site covers a huge area, with impressive standing remains, yet it has been little studied.  The site was used by Al Qaeda as a training camp, and suffered looting first by the Taliban and then by others after they had left.  Despite this terrible recent history, the site now faces its biggest threat – that of total destruction by open-cast copper mining.

Statues whose heads have previously been looted
The name ‘Mes Aynak’ actually means ‘little copper well’, and the presence of the metal has long been known.  It was a major reason for the location of the monastery.  But the metal that once made the site rich now threatens its destruction.  The desire to re-ignite Afghanistan’s economy has led to a Chinese mining company being granted permission to turn the entire huge site into a mine, forever destroying the remains.  Archaeologists have been granted three years to investigate the site – a permission which has led to the largest archaeological project on the planet, as almost 1,000 archaeologists and workers attempt to salvage what information they can about the site.

Yet their efforts may only scratch the surface.  It was estimated that ten years of excavations were required, and the current efforts are little more than a rescue attempt – to take as much away as they can before it is gone forever.  Sadly, this is hardly the textbook approach to investigating such an important site.  The opening of a museum nearby, promised by the government, will sadly seem more of a memorial to the site than a celebration.

The Chinese Metallurgical Group were granted permission to open the mine in 2007, and will be allowed to operate it for 30 years.  The $3 billion dollar deal is the largest in Afghan history.  Chinese workers are already at the site in large numbers, preparing for the destruction to begin in 2014.  1,600 Afghan soldiers, a veritable army, guard the site from further looting.  The irony of such resources being used to protect a site that will soon be destroyed is telling.

The balance between restarting the economy and preserving the past is a difficult one, but the speed with which the excavations must be concluded is shocking.  With more time to properly excavate, the loss of the site would still be regrettable, but at least the damage would be better mitigated.  The present situation seems very much like merely paying lip service to the archaeologists, with the ultimate desire to make money the overriding factor in all things.

Perhaps the most scandalous thing about this tale is that the world barely seems to have noticed that it is happening.  One of the most important Buddhist sites in the world will vanish in a matter of years, and yet it seems like hardly anyone will notice.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Fenland philistinism and archaeological bunny-hugging

Democracy is a funny thing.  We seem to be fighting a few wars at the moment to get other countries to sign up for it.  China is continually bashed because it doesn’t want it.  But sometimes there comes along a story that makes you wonder ‘do we really want it?’  Because it seems that sometimes people can elect leaders who are, quite frankly, barbarians.

Take, as an example, a speech given the other day by Alan Melton, the leader of the Fenland District Council (basically the boggy bit between Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire).  He was speaking at a Building and Design Awards ceremony (read the local newspaper article here), and set out his plans to boost the local economy by taking away elements of the planning process to make new developments easier.  All well and good, you might be thinking - getting rid of the red tape and bureaucracy.  However, his proposals are, simply, to remove pesky and sometimes expensive inconveniences like the historic environment and the archaeological record.

According to Mr Melton, it is an outrage that building projects should have to spend thousands of pounds having to wait while an archaeologist digs holes in the ground, when more money could be made by just bulldozing through it all and letting the archaeologists inspect it ‘when the footings are being dug out.’  A recipe for learning more about our shared history?  No.  A recipe for letting a few of Mr Melton’s mates get a bit richer?  Absolutely.

An insidious example was provided to support his argument.  Apparently an excavation in advance of a college development cost £10,000 – money which Mr Melton argued would have been better spent on schools and teachers.  But let’s just think about that for a second.  Do developers fund the education service in the fens?  No, of course they don’t.  If every developer was allowed to merrily destroy the archaeological record when building their housing estate, not one extra teacher would be provided for local children.  Rather, the lack of historical information available to local schools would in fact damage the education of local children, while developers get to make even more profit.  I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like stealing from the children rather than giving them something.

Of course, Mr Melton’s background rather reveals the source of his bias against culture.  He is a bricklayer, and therefore seems to see anything that stops someone like him making money as a bad thing.  He even mentions unspecified ‘experiences he endured during his former life’ which seem to have twisted his opinions.  Sadly, he has been elected by the good people of the Fens into a position where he can enforce his uncultured views on the rest of us.

To cap it all, what name does he give to people like us who care about the past?  ‘Bunny-huggers’!  As if to suggest that people interested in preserving the past (and presumably by extension the natural environment too), are akin to some stereotypical hippy commune, preaching about world peace and thinking that the soil has feelings.  Rubbish – the systematic study of the history of this country has been carried out for centuries, and Mr Melton, in his desperate desire for economic regeneration, may like to reflect on how much money tourism and heritage bring to the economy of this country.

But of course Mr Melton hasn’t thought about that, because he isn’t really sure what he’s talking about at all.  For one thing, he seems to be confusing the historic environment with global warming, with his comment that ‘I don’t believe the Polar Bears will be floating down the Nene in my life time or indeed my children’s.’  No, Mr Melton, neither do I, but I don’t think that it’s an excuse for raping the archaeological heritage of your district.  I don’t think that camels will be wandering the streets either, but that isn’t a good reason to start shooting endagered birds.  The two things are completely and utterly unrelated.

Modern archaeology is based on the principle of 'the polluter pays'.  A simple concept - if you are going to profit from the destruction of the environment, then you should pay to have it recorded or studied before that destruction.  Mr Melton would have the archaeological record laid bare at the mercy of any greedy capitalists to plunder for personal profit.  That cannot be allowed to happen in any society that calls itself civilised.

People of the fenland please speak out.  Tell this philistine (whom you elected to serve your interests) that what he is doing is irreversibly destroying your heritage purely so a few of his friends in the building sector can get a little bit richer.  If that is what true democracy is, then give me a benign dictatorship any day.

Addendum 24 June 2011

As you may imagine, I was far from the only archaeologist to be enraged and flabbergasted by the above story.  Various professional bodies, such as the Council for British Archaeology and the Institute for Archaeologists have officially expressed their concern, and archaeologists on the British Archaeology mailing list have been vocal in their condemnation.

Mr Melton, however, seems to actually be rather proud of his boorishness.  In a follow-up newspaper article, an email of his to Conservative colleagues is quoted; ‘I don’t tweet, but what a wonderful day … to be attacked by bunny huggers, historic lefties and the vested interested professional classes. Eric Pickles will be extremely proud of me.’

So, eloquent proof indeed that arrogant local Tory politicians are more interested in lickspittle sycophancy with the top brass than with doing what is right for their community and local heritage.  I hope everyone that voted for them at the last election is now enjoying reaping what they have sown.  Hopefully the important archaeological heritage of the fens isn’t fated to pay the price.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Travels with Li Dongni – Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, China (December 2008)

The most poignant of museums

I’ve been to a few Chinese museums, and I have to say that, from the perspective of an English museum curator, they tend to conform to a stereotype – anything that could have money spent on it (eg buildings, display cases, AV presentations, lighting effects, computer reconstructions) look amazing, seriously the equal and more of anything the west has to offer.  However, they tend to fall short when it comes to the underlying function of a museum as we would understand it – to engage with audiences. To teach visitors about a subject, yes, but also to expand their horizons, to get them to think more deeply, to view things from a different perspective and to begin to ask their own questions about the past and present of the world around them.  These are lofty ambitions to be sure, and I’m not saying for a second that all western museums get it right, but the basic premise that museums exist for their audiences is lacking in China.  Instead, Chinese museums exist to tell the story that the top brass wish to be told.  There is no conjecture, no open debate.  This is how it happened, and it shows how glorious China is.  End of story.

So how surprised I was that the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, a place that should be the Mecca of Chinese nationalist propaganda and ‘foreigner hate’, managed to somehow to rise above the rest and present a harrowing human story without making me feel that I should be waving a little Chairman Mao flag and singing the Chinese national anthem.

The Nanjing Massacre is quite simply a chapter in history that we should all be made familiar with.  If it had happened in Europe or America, it would be on the history curriculum of every schoolchild in the world.  The fact that it happened in China is no excuse for the world to forget one of the most horrifying atrocities ever committed.  I’ll give my brief overview of the events in a moment, but I feel that I should plug one of the most moving books I have ever read, Iris Chang’s ‘The Rape of Nanking’.  The researching of the book tragically sent Chang into a depression that led her to take her own life, but the work she left behind is a true testament to the victims of the massacre.

So what happened?  In 1937, the Japanese army invaded China, and quickly took Shanghai.  At that time, Nanjing was the capital but it was decided that it could not be defended.  The Chinese armies withdrew deeper into the country to plan their defence and force the Japanese to overstretch themselves.  The General in charge of Nanjing, Tang Shengzhi, was not prepared to capitulate so easily, however, and gathered around 100,000 men to lead the defence of the City.  Sadly, these were not crack troops, but men with little training and the scattered remnants of soldiers who had fled defeated from Shanghai.  Citizens were prevented from leaving the city through the burning of boats and surrounding villages.  The Japanese army arrived in December 1937 and the makeshift defence quickly crumbled due to low morale and the collapse of discipline.  The Japanese were airdropping leaflets demanding the city to surrender, and eventually a general retreat was ordered.  However, rather than an orderly withdrawal from the city, the Chinese army routed.  Commanders abandoned their men, soldiers stole clothes from civilians in their attempts to disguise themselves, and the streets were littered with discarded weapons and uniforms.  The Japanese army entered the city, and the event that would become infamous began.

Once the City had been taken, the Japanese army engaged in what can only be described as 6 weeks of war crimes, as the soldiers committed mass murder, rape, arson and theft on an inhuman scale.  The true scale of the carnage may never be known, but it is estimated that 300,000 people, mostly civilians, perished.  20,000 women are thought to have been raped, often with brutality and mutilation that I won’t enter into in this blog.  Civilians were rounded up in their thousands and machine-gunned, their bodies falling into pre-prepared mass graves.  Others were beheaded, and there is even Japanese newspaper coverage of a competition between two officers over who could behead the most Chinese.  The winner sickeningly achieved a ‘score’ of 106.  Ordinary Japanese soldiers rounded people up and used them for bayonet practice.  Those thought to be Chinese soldiers hiding as civilians were particularly sought out, and ‘evidence’ such as helmet strap marks under the chin guaranteed a grisly end.

Amid the backdrop of this almost incomprehensible carnage were a small group of Europeans trying to maintain a safe haven for civilians, and who were undeniably responsible for the saving of many thousands of innocent lives.  By a curious twist of fate, the man most responsible for leading the efforts was a German business man, John Rabe, who was a member of the Nazi party and therefore supposedly an ally of the Japanese.  Fortunately his humanist sensibilities overrode political alliances.

The massacre has ever since been burned into the Chinese psyche, and above all other events in the Sino-Japanese war has remained the single incident that sparks tension between the two nations, particularly due to the Japanese refusal to officially acknowledge or apologise for the events, despite the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal executing 4 officers for their actions, including the two who had competed in the beheading competition.

The Memorial Hall was opened in 1985 on the site of one of the mass graves, and it was enlarged and renovated in 1995.  The first thing that a visitor notices as they approach the museum is a huge bronze statue depicting an emaciated and tattered women, in despair over the dead child in her arms.  Visitors should be in no doubt at this point that this museum is about more than buying funny coloured pencils in the shop.

On the approach to the entrance are a further series of bronze dioramas and associated poems, but this time on a more human scale and each dealing with the death of a loved one during the siege.

At the ticket desk, I was asked to step aside by the security guard and answer a few questions.  My ‘China sense’ immediately started tingling, as I expected to be subjected to some ‘foreigner questioning’, but in fact he just asked where I was from, as they liked to keep a more detailed record of their foreign visitor demographic.  As the guard was very friendly, I made a mental note not to be so suspicious in future!

Inside the museum’s walls is a large open area, dominated by more large sculptural works, including a giant memorial cross and a wall with 300,000 written in many different languages.

The most disturbing of these sculptures were definitely the huge head and arm coming out of the ground.  The arm in particular is almost zombie-like, and is the only time I can remember that the museum gives a sense of a desire for revenge rather than simply mourning the dead and asking ‘why’?

The first half of the sizeable museum tells of the Japanese invasion and the political situation leading to the massacre.  The second half, however, dealing with the massacre and its aftermath, is harrowingly memorable.

I should say at this point that I’m used to handling human skeletal remains.  As an archaeological museum curator, the site of a skull or an arm bone is an almost daily occurrence to me, but I’m aware it might not be to everyone.  However, the sight of a mass grave of innocent people, murdered within living memory, is shocking and upsetting on a level I have never before experienced.  The images below show the ‘pit of ten thousand corpses’ upon which the museum is built.  Nothing the museum says in any of its text panels or displays can prepare you for the sight, or leave you with such a profound sense of sadness and anger.

The remainder of the displays tell of the war crimes tribunals and the anger that is still felt that no apology or even official recognition of the event has ever been made.  Comparisons are drawn between this and the new relationships that have been formed in Europe with Germany following the end of the war, because of the willingness of Germany to accept its guilt and rebuild.

There are fewer than 400 survivors of the massacre remaining, and efforts to record their testimony are underway.  In fact, while my wife was studying at Nanjing University about 5 years ago, she took part in a student project to record oral testimonies of survivors, which I know was something that profoundly affected her.

When the museum was renovated, they got as many of the survivors together as they could, and cast their footprints into a walkway running around the outside of the museum.

The experience ends with an attempt at reconciliation, with a large Classical statue of Peace and an eternal flame, both of which are simply but powerfully executed.

I have been to many museums on my travels, but few have had the continued emotional impact on me as this one did.  If ever you find yourself in Nanjing, or interested enough to find out more about the massacre, there are 300,000 very good reasons to do so.