Possessing the Past: The use and abuse of archaeology in building nation-states

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The Ratification of the Treaty of Munster, Gerard Ter Borch (1648) : Wiki Commons

Historical artefacts can be used as a powerful tool to reinforce group identity and forge a nation-state, but their use can have adverse consequences such as the oppression of minorities.

A diagram is used to summarise the complex identity relationships between states and nations. The power of historical artefacts derives from the duality of their nature; they are both a concrete proof of an historical fact and the basis for an abstract construction of meaning. Three case studies are used to provide examples of the use and abuse of archaeology.

From the earliest pre-historic times to the present day man has formed groups which transcend family as a way of organising and regulating society. These groupings, whether Iron Age tribes, Athenian city states or modern nations, have been bound together by many factors such as territory, language and culture. Since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia the nation state has become the main entity through which international relations are organised; even with the development of supra-national bodies, and the changes wrought by globalisation, the nation state has remained pre-eminent.

The decline of the nation-state as the foremost way in which international relations are conceived has been much debated but, like Mark Twain, rumours of its death appear to have been exaggerated. Whether it is in Scotland or the Balkans, national groups, using the rhetoric of nationalism, seek independent nation status as the pinnacle of self determination; alternatives, such as greater autonomy within the existing state, are seen as a lesser status.

The terms ‘nation’, ‘state’, and ‘nation-state’ are often regarded as synonyms; this is incorrect and, whilst recognising their limitations and contested nature, for the purposes of this paper the definitions proposed by Smith will be used. A ‘state’ is a public institution exercising a monopoly of coercion and extraction within a given territory; a ‘nation’ is a cultural and political bond uniting a single political community. A ‘nation-state’ exists where there is complete congruence between the territory of the ‘state’ and that of the ‘nation’.


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Using case studies of National Socialist Germany, Israel, and Bosnia, which show different aspects of how archaeology is used, this paper will explore the importance of associating individual identity with a nation. The tensions between archaeology as an academic discipline, the political milieu, and the use to which it is put, will be explored. The role that identification plays in building and maintaining stable states will be discussed.

Possessing the Past – Full Article – Click Here

Written by Dr Peter Buxton

Dr Peter Buxton studied medicine at Corpus Christi College Oxford and is now a non-practicing consultant radiologist. Along the way, for reasons that are not entirely clear he obtained an MA in Physiology, an MA in Archaeology and an MA in International Relations and Strategic Studies. In 1998 he won the British Computer Society Prize for Innovation and in 2005 he was awarded an OBE for services to military radiology and telemedicine. As well as his archaeology writing, he is widely published in radiology and telemedicine. He has recently contributed a chapter to a book on strategic leadership – In Business and Battle.

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