Who Owns the Past?

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”, wrote George Orwell in “1984”. Who should own the past has no simple answer. Consider an ostensibly simple case of countries like Greece, Turkey, and Egypt demanding “back” ancient works of art - their history. Should they get them? Maybe not.

Cultures are not forever. People move and they forget. The current inhabitants of most places have little in common with the ancient peoples who once lived nearby. Ironically, the modern guys are often descended from conquerors or infiltrators who raped, murdered and annihilated the very cultures that created those artworks they want "back". (DNA indicates that Genghis Khan has 16 million descendents. This was not the result of peaceful intercourse.) Imagine if the Nazis won the war and years later demanded works of art or science created by Jews who once lived in Germany. Geography is not destiny.

Beyond that, much of ancient history was essentially the discovery of 19th Century Europeans. The ancient civilizations of the Mesopotamia were largely unknown until 19th Century archeologist dug them out of what locals thought were just big piles of garbage. Everyone thought the history places like Mycenae or Troy were just myths until a rich and eccentric German found them. The people of Egypt couldn’t help but notice the pyramids, but they knew absolutely nothing of the history of the people who built them. To local people, ruins were just piles of stone or dirt, sources of building materials or booty and not much else.

Their histories were unknown, because nobody could read the languages of Mesopotamia, Archaic Greece or Egypt or cared to find out until nerdy Europeans deciphered them and dug the physical remains out of the ground. Some of these same guys collected and preserved artifacts that were neglected in their home countries and probably would have been destroyed. They saved these treasures. Who should own them now?

If you seriously want to study ancient Greece, Anatolia or Egypt, you are better off going to London, New York or Berlin than to Athens, Ankara or Cairo. This irony is not lost on today's Greeks, Turks or Egyptians, and this bothers them, but what should we do about it?

Similar pressures also affect us Americans. Native American tribes with the complicity of some of our government officials have tried to destroy archeological evidence that might contradict their historical myths (and an "ancestor" who looks a little too much like Jean-Luke Picard.)

Do people have a right to their history in a way that won't hurt their feeling, or do we care more about seeking the truth? History belongs to everybody, not just those who look like the people depicted or those who now live nearby.

Who should control the past? Those who are interested and competent in studying history - and open to changing their minds based on new information - wherever and whoever they might be.

Posted by Jack at January 3, 2006 9:03 PM