For over 200 years, the ancient Near East (its artifacts and sites) has been a rich resource for many people in the West, providing them with the opportunity of gaining personal prestige, national pride and historical rootedness. The practice of archaeology in the Middle East (as well as other parts of the world) has always been and remains embedded in the political discourses.
These political discourses are articulated by more general and overarching global structures that consequently determine power relations. These power relations have been and remain radically uneven among the involved parties of the archaeological practice. Although this is no news and there has been a marked increase in public discussion of it in the past three decades, a recent participation in a conference made me reflect on this issue again. This past November, I managed to travel to San Diego from Tehran, in order to attend the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). The highlight of this year's conference was the new beginning for archaeological research in Iraqi Kurdistan.
These new research projects were conducted mainly by American, but also by a few European universities and research institutions. The plenary address of the conference titled: "The Renaissance of Archaeology in Iraq and its Kurdistan Region", was dedicated to this topic as well. In the conference, reports on the archaeological discoveries in Kurdistan were delivered while one of the most horrible humanitarian crisis of our history was unfolding in that region. Thousands of Yazidi Kurds were forced to leave their homes and flee to mountains under the threat of a massive genocide. The Yazidis were besieged by "ISIL" on Mount Sinjar, for few months already, facing starvation and dehydration. Thousands of Kurds were taken hostage at the city of Mosul; many were fighting nail and tooth to save Kobane, while hundreds of thousands of its residents were displaced along the borders. After the plenary address, the deepest sympathies were expressed to the young Ivy League professor who delivered it, since he had to stop his archaeological project in Kurdistan due to insecurities. The audience regretted the halt of archaeological surveys and excavations in Kurdistan genuinely. Should it have been discomforting that archaeologists lament and regret the loss of archaeological sites while remaining mostly silent and sometimes apathetic on the destruction of homes and livelihoods of inhabitants on and around sites? Or is it that we just live in an era where the sanctity of science deserves more protection than human life?
The colonial nature of the process of archaeological knowledge production in the Middle East is very much crystalized in the asymmetrical relationship among foreign archaeologists and local ones. This is usually perfectly expressed through the "us vs. them" discourse in which these studies were and are being performed and presented. This asymmetrical relationship is mainly rooted in the unequal access to resources but is reinforced through the very norms of how archaeology is practiced in this part of the world. Archaeological projects are mainly temporary layovers until they move to another areas, and although the knowledge gained makes major career contributions for the Western parties, rarely do the native parties involved benefit from the projects at the same level. In the mentioned plenary speech, the contribution of the Kurdish part was limited to some governmental authorities standing up and being applauded for letting the Americans freely conduct research in Kurdistan. A very insignificant portion of the budgeting of these projects have been spent on some limited education for the local students mainly focusing on conservation, rather than the more "prestigious" archaeological activities of surveying, excavating, and the interpretation of data. It is well-known that the scientific and academic infrastructure of Kurdistan in particular, and Iraq in general, suffered tremendously due to the harsh sanctions, and this has been a major impediment for the native archaeological performance in the area. However, as long as the major concern of the foreign projects does not turn into the strengthening of the scientific infrastructure where they work rather than mere data collection, gained knowledge will mainly work to the advantage of Western governments and scholars, and there will be no change in the unequal structure of these relations. The conditions for archaeological work in the Middle East is situated within broader structures of capitalism, imperialism and neocolonialism and are neither chosen nor cannot be altered by archaeologists individually or collectively.
Nonetheless practicing a decolonized archaeology starts with the very simple everyday practices that eventually make up these structures. Just as these practices contribute to the formation of these structures, simple changes in them can alter the broader structures.