Cultural Heritage in an Age of Genocide

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Matthew Omolesky

On a late summer’s day in 1946, amidst the twisted girders, scattered bricks, and spent cartridges that littered the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, a team of Polish researchers began sifting through the pulverized wreckage of 68 Nowolipki Street. The excavators faced daunting obstacles in their methodical progress from surface to substrate, their spades and metal probes slowly working their way through the deposits of jumbled debris to the impacted clay beneath. After hours of strenuous digging at the site of the Marxist Poalei Zion’s demolished safe-house, a probe at last found its mark: an otherwise unassuming tin box, carefully bound in twine but very much worse for the wear. Nine more receptacles were soon unearthed nearby, some badly waterlogged and beyond redemption, but most salvageable. However laborious the process of exhumation proved to be, the researchers’ efforts were undeniably worth the while. These war-worn artifacts, after all, contained portions of the precious archives of Oyneg Shabes, “The Joy of Sabbath,” a clandestine society devoted to chronicling the life and culture of the Warsaw Jewry prior to the Ghetto’s liquidation.

Under the leadership of historian Emanuel Ringelblum, Oyneg Shabes operated underground, assiduously gathering some 35,000 documents, ranging from official papers, eyewitness testimonies, and last testaments to playbills, menus, and even candy wrappers. Ringelblum’s goal was to take a “photograph of life” capturing the scattered remains of the Ghetto. “If none of us survives,” wrote Ringelblum, “at least let that remain,” safe for posterity’s sake “from fire and water.” As they prepared their makeshift receptacles in the semi-darkness of bunkers and subterranes, the volunteers were under no illusion as to their impending fate. In a September 1942 essay included in one of the caches, archivist Gustawa Jarecka acknowledged that “we have nooses fastened around our necks. When the pressure abates for a moment we utter a cry. Its importance should not be underestimated. Many a time in history did such cries resound; for a long time they resounded in vain, and only much later did they produce an echo.” Although “this will not help us,” Jarecka admitted, “we are noting evidence of the crime,” for “the record must be hurled like a stone under history’s wheel in order to stop it.”

The Oyneg Shabes repositories thus represented an ante-mortem deposition delivered against any future spoliators of historical evidence. There were hortatory and precatory aspects as well. “We want our sufferings,” wrote Abraham Lewin, a fellow archivist, “to be impressed on the memories of future generations and on the memory of the whole world.” The spiritual aspect of this undertaking should not be overlooked either, given that the archives rather resemble genizot, those ancient storehouses that protected worn-out Hebrew texts from profanation. “The contents of the book go up to heaven like a soul,” as the antiquarian Solomon Schechter put it, and so written records, in whatever form they take, are by their very nature deserving of an appropriate interment. “A genizah serves therefore the twofold purpose of preserving good things from harm and bad things from harming,” in Elkan Adler’s words, and Ringelblum’s Oyneg Shabes served an equivalent purpose. In doing so it constituted one of the most profound acts of cultural heritage preservation ever undertaken.

The organizers of the Warsaw Ghetto archives were by no means the only victims of the Shoah to conceal recorded evidence of their persecution in the soil beneath them, in the desperate hope that posterity would benefit from their testimony. Herman Kruk and Zalman Gradowksi famously did so at Klooga and Auschwitz-Birkenau respectively, as did Itzakh Katzenelson, who used three small bottles to bury his last manuscripts, including the justly renowned epic poem “Dos lid funem oysgehargetn yidishn folk,” “The Song of the Murdered Jewish People,” in the doleful shade of a tree in the French detention camp at Vittel. While imprisoned in the Hôtel Providence and the Hôtel Beau-Site—the hideous irony of those names surely not lost on him—Katzenelson conjured up a macabre, yet expectant, vision later to be discovered curled up in one of his phials:

Oh, alas, my people appear. Raise your hands
Out of the deep, mile long graves and sealed shut,
Layer upon layer, doused with lime and burned,
Up! Up! Ascend from the obstacle, the deepest layer!

By uncovering buried testimonies in the ghettos, death camps, and spa towns of post-war Europe, the heirs of Ringelblum, Katzenelson, et al. were effectuating just that, as the dead hands of the past were grasped and pulled out from under those awful barrows of heaped earth so that they might take up a new task for posterity’s sake.

A similar impetus was behind the widespread production of yizker-bikher, or memorial books, produced by survivors and émigrés in an effort to record the lives, deaths, and afterlives of their brutalized communities. One such book recounted the words Rabbi Nokhem Yanishker uttered to his students upon the arrival of the German army in Slobodka, Lithuania: “Now that evil is so widespread, who shall uphold the world, if not Slobodka?” Preparing himself and his charges for the “final deed” of martyrdom, Rabbi Nokhem kept one eye on futurity, with the exhortation that:

If peace should return to the world, you should continuously tell of the greatness and wisdom in Torah and morals of Lithuania, what a fine and honorable life the Jews led there. But don’t dissolve into tears and mourning. Tell it peacefully and calmly, as our Holy Tannoim did in their midrash Eykho Rabosi, about the destruction of the Holy Temple. And like them, the holy wise men, you should also recreate your speech in letters. That will be the greatest revenge you can take on the evil ones. In spite of them, the souls of your brothers and sisters will live on, the martyrs whom they sought to destroy. For no one can annihilate letters. They have wings, and they fly around in the heights … into eternity.

Emanuel Ringelblum and his band of academic archivists could hardly have made a better case for the vital nature of their collective mission of cultural heritage preservation than the one made by the Rabbi Nokhem in extremis. Indeed, each one of these figures arrived independently at the same conclusion. Faced with the inevitable and irrevocable destruction of their persons and the better part of their communities, they waged an ultimately successful rear-guard action against the attempted eradication of faith, memory, culture, and humanity.

“Through a miracle, I have been rescued from Nazi bondage,” wrote the survivor Binyomin Orenshtayn in another such memorial book, “yet I feel like a solitary twig from a ruined garden.” Orenshtayn’s simile is bleak, but the image of a sprig miraculously surviving the garden’s general ruination nonetheless contains within it a crucial kernel of hope. Even a mutilated bud, drooping stalk, or harrowed plot may rejuvenate, germinate, and re-establish itself, however pronounced the surrounding welter and waste may be. The various botanical metaphors for humanity are popular for a reason, conveying as they do that comforting sense of fecundity and regenerative capacity present in human culture, which offsets a concomitant sense of vulnerability and transience. “As for man, his days are as grass, as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth,” the Psalms (103:15) tell us, while the parables of the Gospels are replete with budding fig trees and sprouting mustard seeds in the garden of mankind. The Koran likewise has its metaphorical oases of palm and grapevine, alongside those of tamarisk and lote-tree. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav poignantly declared the mass graves of pogrom victims at Uman to be a garden of a kind, and offered to serve in perpetuity as “Master of the Field.” Of course, in a rather more secular context, we have the quietist Voltairean admonition that “il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“we must cultivate our garden”).

According to another Enlightenment philosopher, the proto-anthropologist Johann Gottfried Herder, “to the good of mankind as a whole can no one contribute who does not make of himself what he can and should become; each should therefore cultivate and tend the garden of humanity first on that bed, where he turns green as a tree, or blossoms as a flower.” As the primogenitor of cultural relativism, Herder maintained that “every tribe and people was unfathomably and indestructibly unique,” and that each specimen within the human garden “represented a truth of its own, which was compounded of blood, soil, climate, environment, experience,” as opposed to representing an “isolated rock” or “egotistic monad.” The Herderian notion that cultural bonds are, as Frederick Barnard later summarized, neither “things or artifacts imposed from above but living energies (Kräfte) emanating from within” was an outgrowth of the organic dynamism of the Aufklärung philosopher’s conception of humanity in all its vitality and resilience. How consolatory, then, is the hortus gardinus metonym for society, with its implication that a solitary twig in a ruined garden need not represent the last of its kind.

Regrettably, our horticultural metaphor has not always been employed in so uplifting a manner. Anthony Trollope, at the height of Britain’s imperial expansion, wrote of native peoples that “have withered by commune with us as the weaker weedy grasses of Nature’s first planting wither and die wherever come the hardier plants, which science added to nature has produced,” while his contemporary Thomas Henry Huxley surmised: “supposing the [colonial] administrator to be guided by purely scientific considerations, he would, like the gardener, meet … serious difficulty by systematic extirpation, or exclusion, of the superfluous.” A century later the Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall would excoriate Herder’s vision of the “comity of nations as a garden of wildflowers,” calling it

the most childish notion ever to have imposed itself on an influential mind. Whatever he [Herder] may have imagined, the garden of human cultures contains just as many stink-lilies as violets, strangling vines as primrose, sick societies as those with rosy cheeks—and too many problems in the modern world stem from sentimentally denying this fact.

Sandall, perturbed as he was by the Rousseauian “culture cult” of “romantic primitivism,” effectively conveyed his exasperation with cultural relativism, but the concern is that such an attitude asymptotically approaches Social Darwinism, the worst manifestations of which can, in turn, provide the ideological basis for appalling infractions of natural justice. What are rosy-cheeked societies meant to do about their sick counterparts? What are the growers of sophisticated cultivars supposed to do about unwelcome varietals? It is one thing to advance the seemingly neutral observation that the human garden is not merely composed of flowers, but also noxious, strangling, and stinking weeds intrinsically inferior to cultivated species. It takes only one more conceptual leap to consider the role of the pruning hook, the scythe, and the sickle, not to mention more advanced pesticidal methods (and it may be worth noting in passing that the prussic acid compound later known as Zyklon-B made its commercial debut as a citrus fumigant).

Small wonder, then, that a 1932 edition of the Nazi satirical—if one can really call it that—hebdomadaire Die Brennessel depicted a fascist gardener lopping off Jewish heads above the caption “Kampf dem Unkraut,” or “Battling the Weeds.” Hitler himself obsessed over the need to “prune off the wild shoots and tear out the weeds,” inspired by the inventor of the term Lebensraum, Friedrich von Bernhardi, who warned of “inferior or decaying races [that] would easily choke the growth of healthy budding elements.” The Turkish nationalist Ziya Gökalp, at the time of the Armenian Genocide maintained that “the people is like a garden. We are supposed to be its gardeners! First the bad shoots are to be cut. And then the scion is to be grafted.” Mao Zedong likened his democratic or aristocratic foes to “poisonous weeds.” The Rwandan Hutu Power génocidaires in 1994 referred to adult Tutsis as “tall weeds” and to their children as “shoots,” while congratulating themselves on having “swept dry banana leaves before burning them,” another horticulturist’s task. The list could go on.

“Modern genocide,” Zygmunt Bauman pronounced in Modernity and the Holocaust, “is a gardener’s job,” for “it is just one of the many chores that people who treat society as a garden need to undertake. If garden design defines its weeds, there are weeds wherever there is a garden. And weeds are to be exterminated … All visions of society-as-garden define parts of the social habitat as human weeds.” Eliminationist ideologies recast genocide as a sort of swiddening in the interests of societal restoration. Orenshtayn’s solitary twig is thus dismissed as a pernicious weed unworthy of cultivation, or worthy only of being torn out, root and branch, in the interests of improving the jardin politique.

It is here that we approach the crux of the historical debate over cultural genocide. For Ringelblum and his fellow preservationists, the campaign against cultural obliteration was a matter of paramount importance, even when compared to the threatened physical destruction of a people, just as it was for the jurist Rafael Lemkin. When coining the word, Lemkin defined “genocide” as the “intent to destroy or cripple permanently a human group,” but he hastened to add that the “derived needs” or “cultural imperatives” of a society are

just as necessary to their existence as the basic physiological needs … These needs find expression in social institutions or, to use an anthropological term, the culture ethos. If the culture of a group is violently undermined, the group itself disintegrates and its members must either become absorbed in other cultures which is a wasteful and painful process or succumb to personal disorganization and, perhaps, physical destruction.

There is thus the phenomenon as ethnocide or social death, the process by which traditions, values, folkways, languages, and other collective projects are snuffed out, and intergenerational linkages severed, without the utter destruction of a people necessarily being accomplished—the pruning of a people, in other words. As Claudia Card summarized it

The harm of social death is not necessarily less extreme than that of physical death. Social death can even aggravate physical death by making it indecent, removing all respectful and caring ritual, social connections, and social contexts that are capable of making dying bearable and even making one’s death meaningful. In my view, the special evil of genocide lies in its infliction of not just physical death (when it does that) but social death, producing a consequent meaninglessness of one’s life and even its termination.

One imagines that Ringelblum, Katzenelson, Reb Nokhem, and the others cited above would have understood Card perfectly, though she admits that “this view, however, is controversial.”

So it has proven. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the framers of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide wholly omitted cultural genocide from the finalized text. The United States representatives were adamant that the “prohibition of the use of language, systematic destruction of books, and destruction and dispersion of documents and objects of historical or artistic value, commonly known in this Convention to those who wish to include it, as ‘cultural genocide’ is a matter which certainly should not be included in this Convention.” The United Kingdom objected that the “inclusion of such indefinite concepts as cultural genocide” would “render the whole concept of genocide meaningless,” while for France such a move risked “transforming a minor infringement of rights into an international principle.”

Eastern Bloc nations took umbrage at this line of reasoning, with the Belarusian delegate pointing out that:

the destruction of cultural and national centers accompanied the mass destruction of people, cities, and villages. The Germans had burned the Academy of Sciences, the State University, the State Library, the schools of medicine and law, the Ballet Theater, the National Library, whose books had been plundered and destroyed, and over one thousand school buildings in the region of Minsk alone.

Poland’s plenipotentiary concurred, echoing Lemkin in his insistence that the convention “would only be effective if it covered cultural genocide which could be as destructive of the life of a nation as physical extermination.” Sadar Bahadur Khan of Pakistan, meanwhile, flipped the traditional script by insisting that “cultural genocide represented the end, whereas physical genocide was merely the means. The chief motive of genocide was a blind rage to destroy ideas, the values and the very soul of a national, racial, or religious group, rather than its physical existence,” while adding that “for millions of men in most Eastern countries, the protection of sacred books and shrines was more important than life itself; the destruction of those sacred books or shrines might mean the extinction of spiritual life,” pace those who “appeared to consider cultural genocide as a less hideous crime than physical or biological genocide.” This critically important theme was later picked up by Zygmunt Bauman, who stressed that modern genocide is “genocide with a purpose,” for:

Getting rid of the adversary is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end: a necessity that stems from the ultimate objective, a step that one has to take if one wants ever to reach the end of the road. The end itself is a grand vision of a better and radically different society. Modern genocide is an element of social engineering, meant to bring about a social order conforming to the design of the perfect society.

Unfortunately, just as Soviet delegates were arguing in favor of cultural protection within the Convention, the Soviet Union itself was engaged in widespread purges not just of individuals and classes, but of cultural paraphernalia like the epic poems, or dastans, of the Azeri, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Karakalpak peoples, which were deemed dangerously “bourgeois nationalist,” “clerical,” “feudal,” and generally un-dialectical. The communities of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast were likewise subjected to Stalinist policies of libricidal cultural suppression, prompting the Yiddish poet Chaim Beyder to describe the bonfires outside a Jewish library in Birobidzhan in terms that mirrored those employed by Itzakh Katzenelson:

With what anguish those Yiddish books burned
And trembled in the smoke’s stationary vortex,
Their very pages upturned
Like lifted limbs
Writhing in pain amid the flames.

Elsewhere, in the Trans-Baikal territory, entire Buddhist libraries were being obliterated, with precious Kanjur manuscripts sent to pulp-mills and sacred woodblocks fed into the iconoclastic pyres of a brutal purge. Though Louis Henkin once posited that “the development of human rights law may indeed serve as a lesson in the benign consequences of certain kinds of hypocrisy, of the homage that vice pays to virtue,” the most vocal of the state sponsors of cultural genocide legislation had stumbled badly out of the gate.

So complete was the official rejection of cultural genocide that the Trial Chamber of the Yugoslav Tribunal found in Prosecutor v. Krstić (2001) that “an enterprise attacking only the cultural or sociological characteristics of a human group in order to annihilate these elements which give to that group its own identity distinct from the rest of the community would not fall under the definition of genocide.” The effect of this attitude, however defensible from a narrow juridical standpoint, has nevertheless proven undeniably perverse, as we now find ourselves inhabiting a sort of Manichaean globus horribilis marred by a seemingly endless consecution of ethnocidal campaigns.

“Indigenous groups,” Robert Hitchcock and Tara Twedt noted in their contribution to the 1997 anthology, Century of Genocide, “disappeared at an unprecedented rate” over the course of the twentieth century, “a product of both physical and cultural extinction.” Their stark warning—that “without efforts to document cases of genocide and to impose penalties on those governments and agencies responsible, killings and disappearances will be commonplace occurrences not just for indigenous groups but for many of the world’s peoples”—has been borne out in spades. Take the ongoing butchery in the Levant, which has transformed the Mediterranean basin into an immense bleeding bowl. Assyrian Christians, who weathered Ottoman and Baathist massacres, internment in mujamma’āt processing centers, and the wholesale destruction of churches, monasteries, orchards, statues, and books, now face existential threats to their community and cultural patrimony coming from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The president of the Assyrian Genocide and Research Center, Sabri Atman, has argued that “when the massacres and human rights violations of the past were not sentenced sufficiently, it paved the way for new massacres. The most effective way to prevent future slaughter is to condemn past slaughter.” But Assyrians, Chaldeans, Copts, Mandaeans, Yazidis, Jews, and other groups facing campaigns of extermination and cultural cleansing have ample evidence—in the form of widespread attacks, sabaya (sexual enslavement), hostage-taking, and iconoclasm—that neither past nor present enormities have fully penetrated the international consciousness.

What is occurring all over the wider region, as a consequence, is what Freya Stark memorably termed the “breaking of the human mainspring.” In an interview with Gerard Russell, author of the moving Middle Eastern travelogue, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, the Mandaean asylum-seeker Nadia Gattan described the dynamic in an Iraqi context: “We were the fulcrum in a pair of scales—holding Iraqi society together. And when the Mandaeans and other minorities left, the scales were broken.” It is not just in the Levant that such catastrophic processes are at work.

In Crimea, the Tatar Mejlis parliament has been branded an extremist organization by the Russian-backed authorities and most Tatar media organizations have been banned outright, all in a transparent attempt to grind down a community scarred by a brutal history of deportation and massacre. Many Uyghurs find themselves in an analogous position in China’s East Turkestan, facing what the European Parliament has described as a pattern of “marginalisation, discrimination and repression that has been meted out to the Uyghur community in China since the 1940s,” including the bulldozing of the ancient city of Kashgar and official campaigns against traditional attire, prayer, and Ramadan fasting. The Sinicization of Tibet can be viewed similarly, given the Dalai Lama’s claims that “there is an ancient cultural heritage that is facing serious danger” and that “whether intentionally or unintentionally, some kind of cultural genocide is taking place.”

In the Bumburet valley of northwestern Pakistan, the ancient Kalash community has found itself beset by institutional conversions and militant attacks. Yasir Kalash has warned that “if this goes on, our culture will be finished within the next few years,” while beseeching: “We request to the world, preserve us.” The Kalash share the same problem afflicting the beleaguered peoples of the Near East, best described by the Chaldean Father Fr. Douglas Al-Bazi, namely that they are “living and breathing human beings, not museum pieces,” but “soon we will be small enough for the world to forget about us completely.”

It is hard to gainsay such a foreboding outlook, though not all has been lost in recent years. The language and customs of the Libyan Amazigh (Berbers) survived Muammar Gaddafi’s Cultural Revolution, and recent years have seen a renaissance owing to the efforts of language activists like Madghis Buzakhar. In the Nafusa mountain range of Tripolitania, Berbers are now able to speak Amazigh, read the Tifinagh script, and celebrate the Amazigh New Year, all without fear of repression, as they “refresh their collective memory,” in the hopeful words of the archaeologist Mostafa Ouachi. Readers of Joshua Hammer’s spirited 2016 account, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, will be familiar with Abdel Kader Haidara’s heroic efforts to safeguard Mali’s religious and secular manuscripts from the depredations of al-Qaeda militants. Haidara’s preservation campaign was followed in short order by the September 27, 2016 ruling by the International Criminal Court in The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, in which the trial chamber, for the first time in history, found a defendant guilty of directing attacks against “buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, [or] historic monuments,” in this case a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Timbuktu. While the court emphasized that Al Mahdi was “not charged with crimes against persons but with a crime against property”—which, “even if inherently grave … are generally of lesser gravity than crimes against persons”—a precedent has thankfully been set.

For all that, there are altogether too many groups upon whom total darkness threatens to descend. This is in no small part because of a longstanding attitude that ethnocide pales in comparison to physical genocide. It was the contention of Rafael Lemkin, Sadar Bahadur Khan, and other human rights luminaries that this formulation is counter-productive, if not completely misguided. But in our present-day only the most vacillatory efforts are being made to prevent human rights malfeasors from creating a future without a past for the religious minorities of the Levant, Crimea, East Turkestan, Tibet, and elsewhere. Perpetrators of crimes against cultural patrimony have an implicit understanding of the Syrian aphorism that “one who has no old has no new.” The victims of these acts of cultural despoliation understand this even better. It is incumbent on the international community to recognize the truth of it as well.

Given all of the noisome foregoing descriptions of threatened peoples within the garden of humanity as weeds, unclean branches, and worse besides, it seems appropriate to conclude in the lush and holy valley of Lalish, where the Yazidis have situated the original Paradise. There, as John Guest described in his history of the Yazidis, Survival Among the Kurds,

Travellers from the treeless plain of Nineveh make their way up the foothills to enter a world of mountain oaks, arbutus and mulberry, willows and terebinths, hawthorn and oleander … On the northern slope of the valley, where Adi’s shrine now stands, clear spring water gushes out of the rock and irrigates a garden of plane, mulberry and fig trees. In the summer the air is filled with the fragrance of countless flowers, the songs of birds, the humming of bees and the gentle flight of butterflies.

The hills surrounding the shrine are strewn with crimson poppies, flowers which are nourished, it is believed, by the copious blood of Yazidi martyrs. From the seventeenth century on, the people of Êzîdxan have faced down existential threats emanating from the Sublime Porte, al-Qaeda, and ISIL, and have in recent years been cruelly forced into slavery, conversion, and the stopped earth of mass graves. In Lalish, in the supposed Garden of Eden, one certainly does not encounter the “weaker weedy grasses of Nature’s first planting,” but rather adornments to our collective civilization, sustained by the sacrifice of generation after generation. But in Lalish, as threats from beyond the valley inexorably mount, we also find confirmation of the Ukrainian-Israeli poet Jacob Steinberg’s assertion that “the world is not an enclosed garden.”

The Yazidis, for their part, derive considerable comfort in their collective distress from the tale of Tawûsê Melek, the benevolent Peacock Angel said to have fallen from Heaven and wept for seven millennia, eventually extinguishing the infernal fires with the sheer volume of his teardrops. In the outcry of the Peacock Angel one is reminded of another cri de coeur, that of the Oyneg Shabes archivist Gustawa Jarecka, who observed that “many a time in history did such cries resound; for a long time they resounded in vain, and only much later did they produce an echo.” We hear those echoes in the moving words and deeds of preservationists all the world over, sometimes faint, sometimes resonant. All that remains for the listener is to absorb the admonitions of the past and present, and to acknowledge that the malevolence that fuels ethnocide is seldom satisfied by the destruction of values and artifacts, and invariably endangers individuals, communities, and the very repose of nations.

And as Rabbi Nokhem Yanishker posited on the eve of the destruction of his own Lithuanian community, the “greatest revenge” against practitioners of genocide, cultural or otherwise, is to forestall the annihilation of letters, the better to ensure that imperiled cultural patrimony survives to take flight again. Amidst the leaden fog of war that surrounds the rampant humanitarian crises of our day, at least let that cogent and altogether hard-won counsel emerge.

Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the field of cultural heritage law and policy. Formerly a researcher at the Slovene Inštitut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo and the French Laboratoire Européen d'Anticipation Politique, he is currently involved in several human rights and cultural heritage projects in the Horn of Africa. His writing has appeared in Quadrant, The American Spectator, Democratiya, the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, the European Journal of Archaeology, and elsewhere.