Cornelius Holtorf on Iconoclasm and Heritage Politics Reconsidered

In a forthcoming paper entitled “Iconoclasm: The loss and destruction of Heritage reconsidered”, Cornelius (Holtorf) argues for a radical change in our view of the past as a non-renewable resource. His argument is based on the observation that the amount of archaeological data available to us today is much larger than in any previous period, and that new archaeological monuments and sites are being created everyday. He goes on to say, and this will understandably provoke a lot of people, that a lot can be learnt from destroying archaeological sites in ways that are known in non-Western societies, e.g. in South Africa.

This is true in a couple of ways. Some archaeological discoveries have been made directly because of more or less intentional destruction, e.g. in 1944 when bombs hit the Italian town of Palestrina and uncovered the sanctuary of Fortuna Primegenia. It is also true in the sense that modern demolition in city centres often reveals previously unknown archaeological monuments, e.g. the recent discovery of the Roman amphitheatre in Sofia. But this is not really the kind of destruction that Cornelius is concerned with.

He uses his own personal collection, small artifacts from Ostia and Sicily and a fragment of the Berlin Wall, as example. They are personal reminders of his archaeological experience at these sites and represent a kind of embodied memories. The thought of an archaeological site turned into millions of small fragments and spread around the world into people’s homes is indeed a beautiful one. In fact, it might make some sites more appreciated than they are at present.

I can only agree with him up to a point. I appreciate non-destructive methods of attaching memories to places and archaeological sites. Yellow Arrow, recently much hyped in Denmark by Politiken among others, is one example of such an approach. A similar, but a bit more problematic case in Verona was recently featured on Michael Shanks’ blog (currently under reconstruction). I also believe that present society should be able to set our mark on the world, and not let conservationists turn entire cities into museums (something that I have taken issue with a couple of times on my Danish blog). However, the problem that I see with Cornelius’ proposition is where to draw the line? It is quite right that removing a loose tessera at Ostia is harmless, but it is rather less harmless when heads of statues are being cut off or whole mosaics removed from such sites. In a way, we would be returning to the era of the Grand Tours, when marble souvenirs were a must.

However, it’s the materialistic understanding of memory behind the idea that I’m the most uncomfortable with. Although this is an embedded part of modern society, I feel that when it comes to heritage we need to move forward. Yellow Arrow is about sharing, whereas (personal) collections are usually locked up and inaccessible. Archaeology remains undeniably (although some wouldn’t agree with me on this) linked to antiquarianism and collecting, and we continue to be at odds with this tradition. It is often the fascination of (old) things that have inspired people to study archaeology. My own personal collection consists of a few fragments of Roman and Medieval pottery, mainly from French sites, and a marble fragment from Sounion (where it had fallen off the cliff and on the way to being lost in the sea).

I do like to think of Cornelius’ approach as a way to overcome the divide between amateur collector and archaeologist. A personal anecdote from Izmir, where I was once followed by a keen and very friendly tourist. I would once in a while pick up pieces of glass and pottery from the ground to have a closer look. He did the same, but pocketed the finds and told me they were for his daughter, who appreciated history and archaeology. His actions were harmless, since everything he picked up was from a pile of material, that the excavators had dumped as ‘uninteresting’. If his finds made it out of Turkey, I do hope that they made his daughter appreciate archaeology and the past even more.

Cornelius also has a new book out, From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. Archaeology as Popular Culture, where he discusses this issue and many others. It’s a great read, and a book that I can only recommend.

Cornelius Holtorf. 2005. From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA.
Cornelius Holtorf. Forthcoming. “Iconoclasm: The loss and destruction of Heritage reconsidered”, in: Graham Coulter-Smith & Maurice Owen (eds.) Collateral Damage: Art in the Age of Terrorism. London. The introduction to this book is available online. More info here.

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  1. Troels, the point of my article is precisely that it is impossible “to draw the line” or in fact to draw _any_ line of this kind.

    Morever, I argue that there is no fundamental contradiction between conservation and destruction. Unfortunately I fear that you missed some of the points I thought I made in my paper 😉

    For example, I argue that it can be an advantage for remembering the past if little or no cultural heritage survives in material form.

    I argue that what some would call destruction might simply be a way of consuming heritage in a way that others are not used to or simply choose not to approve of.

    I argue that questions about the destruction of cultural artifacts are ultimately questions about specific sets of values and ideals governing the consumption of heritage.

    I argue that even conservation implies loss. Even destruction implies creation.

    I argue that conservation is not necessarily categorically different from destruction,
    as both processes transform a site in fundamental ways.

    I argue that the current appeal of conservation
    is in fact more a product of history than the appeal of history could be said to be a product of conservation.

    I argue that destruction is an inevitable part of every (re)construction, whether that destruction is material or merely in our minds. You are always going to lose some things
    and gain others, although people may disagree strongly about the relative merits of what is lost and what is gained.

    I conclude by stating that not the acts of iconoclasts and vandals are challenging sustainable notions of a world heritage of humankind but the inability of academic and political observers to understand and theorize what heritage does, and what is done to it, within the different lived realities that together make up our one world.

    I hope that others will join this discussion!

  2. Excuse my crude reading of your paper, Cornelius. 🙂

    Yet I can’t stop to think that there is (or maybe rather should be) a dichotomy between the kind of destruction that you talk about, and human memory. One is linked to the material remains, whereas the other is situated in the mind. At least preserved monuments are in the public domain, where collections (such as yours and mine) might help individuals remember that site, but surely it’s lost to everyone else. And this applies even if conservation fundamentally changes the nature of a site.

    Maybe I’m just too attached to a particular part of the past….

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