Destroy the past – at your peril

The Emin Minaret, Turfan, China. Heritage sites do not have to relate to our own society in order to be meaningful.

There has been a bit of discussion about the morality of destroying heritage sites. Whether as an act of repercussion in war, or the lead up to war, or as a way of simplifying the present, it has shocked me that it might be something for consideration.

This is not just about UNESCO and the World Heritage list. You could argue that by providing a World Heritage list UNESCO helpfully provide information relating to the locations where a hit would hurt most. It is the sheer barbarity of it (and I feel here that I am denigrating barbarians).

We take it for granted, or I thought we did, that one should not destroy (or vandalise) cultural heritage. But it never does any harm to revisit the whys and wherefores…

The world today contains many societies, and they are all (despite the best efforts of global consumerism) different. We have maintained our local tastes, ways of doing things and languages. These elements might be described as culture. It is culture that provides each society with its unique qualities. Culture provides colour, depth, sound, and texture to the framework of society. Culture defines any society and it is manifest in the physical traces that society leaves behind.

Over the centuries culture evolves. Changing technology, values, and fashions are recorded in these past physical traces. The nature of a society at any one point in time reflects the foundation laid by past expressions of its culture together with current influences both internal and external. Thus, the new traces of that society will be different from those of the past.

The legacy of these physical traces, those that survive through time, is, of course, what we recognise as archaeology. In other words: heritage sites. The very best we might call Heritage Sites, and even recognise them with an accolade such as that of World Heritage. All, lowly or classy, are significant. It is the archaeologist’s task to record and study them all. To tease out the information they contain about the ways in which societies have developed through time.

Around the world, heritage sites comprise a record of the development of its people. The task of looking after this record falls upon us all. There is an element of collective responsibility. As global citizens we have a duty to conserve the record of the past. We might not agree with the values and beliefs of a society, but we should not try to remove the traces of their past, or, indeed, the physical record of their passing. Even difficult heritage carries an important lesson for the future and we should not try to eradicate it. Heritage is not always about relaxation and fun. Thus, sites like Auschwitz in Poland, or Elmina Castle in Ghana are not intended to provide an easy visit, but they hold important lessons that we should never try to obliterate. The future will be shaky indeed if we do not build it on the foundations of the past.

I’d extend this to considerations of the past misdeeds of our own society. It is not just about castigating others. While it is entirely appropriate to ensure that we do not applaud activities that we now recognise as wrong, we should not seek to elimate the record that they once took place. Heritage can be as much about discussion, and even apology, as about celebration. We have a duty to stimulate that discussion. It is the remembrance that is important.

Easy or difficult, the heritage sites of the world are of wider value than mere physical representations of past (and often different) populations. The destruction of cultural legacy might seem like an efficient way to undermine a society with which we disagree, but it is more complex than that. In the west (where I am from), there has been widespread condemnation of the destruction of sites like Palmyra and Bamyan. It seemed to be easy to see that as the action of those with little understanding of life. We do ourselves no favours if we slip into their shoes on a whim.

When we damage a heritage site, we belittle not only the society who made it, we also belittle ourselves.