Archaeology and Nationalism

Nationalism is the identification with one's nation and the promotion of the interests of a country. Throughout history archaeology has been used by governments and national leaders for political purposes, serving to unify a nation and its people under a common ideology and narrative of the past. Here are two examples of how archaeology has been entangled in nationalism and used to promote political agendas.

Fascist Italy and ancient Rome

In 1926, Benito Mussolini established a dictatorship in Italy through his fascist party and emphasised the connections between his party and ancient Rome to establish supremacy. The term 'fascist' links to the Latin word fasces, meaning bundles of birch or elm rods with an axe on one end. In ancient Rome, fasces was a symbol of the power of the magistrate and central authority. The version of the fasces that was chosen as the symbol of Mussolini's party was the original symbol used in Roman times. The concept of Romanness or romanit√† was promoted in Italy as a way to unify the local people and garner support for the fascist party. 

Photo of Mussolini giving a speech in Piazza Venezia Rome
Mussolini giving a speech in Piazza Venezia, Rome (link here)

The actions taken by Mussolini to emphasise the link between his party, Italy as a nation and its Roman past included extensive archaeological excavations to uncover more of the ancient city of Rome, and reconstruction of archaeological monuments to their former glory. Mass media, including a monthly magazine, containing content on the archaeology of Rome and its transformation as a city from ancient times to the present was distributed to the public to foster widespread interest. The common identity that was created and reinforced in these between war years served to unite Italian peoples in the lead up to and during World War II. As the personification of this nationalism, Mussolini fashioned himself after prominent Roman historical and mythological figures.

This obsession with the ancient Roman past created a belief in a Mediterranean peoples who were superior to other races, similar to the ideology of a pure Aryan race in Nazi Germany, and was used to justify Italian colonial occupation of north Africa. The restorations of archaeological monuments were often improper as they were completed by labourers, not archaeologists, and the total focus on ancient Rome meant that later archaeological remains from Medieval and Renaissance times were damaged and in some cases destroyed. Many people were displaced as their homes were demolished to make way for these urban projects. In this example of Italy in the first half of the 20th century, the tension between idealistic propaganda and reality was very different, demonstrating the inaccuracy of the Roman facade promoted by the fascist party for purely political purposes.

India and the Indus Civilisation

Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 resulted in the formation of the separate nations of India and Pakistan (comprising West Pakistan and East Pakistan), divided across religious divisions. This resulted in the displacement of millions of residents, with Muslims living within the boundary of India being forced to move to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India, in order to avoid religious persecution.

The Indus Civilisation, an ancient civilisation in the northwest of the subcontinent that was contemporary with and spread over a larger area than the Egyptian and Mesopotamian ancient civilisations, was discovered in the late 1800s/early 1900s and officially recognised in 1924. Partition resulted in the major archaeological sites of the Indus Civilisation, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, falling within the boundary of West Pakistan. As a result, the new nation of India began extensive archaeological exploration in the northwest of the country to identify Indus sites within the country's recently established border. This was a nationalistic endeavour, intended to demonstrate that Indian culture had roots as ancient as those of Pakistan. 

Over the 20th century many new Indus archaeological sites were found in northwest India, although none as large as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. In addition to the search for archaeological settlements, Indian Hindu nationalism influenced the direction of archaeological research. Archaeology departments were established in many universities across India, and research focused on the culture of the Indus Civilisation and connections between the Indus peoples and later Indian historic traditions, particularly Vedic culture in which the Sanskrit Vedas texts are the oldest religious texts of Hinduism and Sikhism. Links between Indus iconography seen on seals and tablets, accompanied by the undeciphered Indus script, provided the opportunity to identify parallels in imagery, including human figures in yoga positions and the presence of pipal leaves, which are associated with later Indian historic traditions. 

Indus seal showing human figure in possible yoga position with undeciphered Indus script above
Indus seal showing human figure in possible yoga position (link here)

The concept of nationalism as it is seen today and its backward projection onto the Indus Civilisation is incongruent with the likely nature of the the civilisation. DNA and archaeological research on human and cultural remains from Indus sites suggest that there were diverse populations living in the Indus Civilisation, and that modern notions of nationalism are inconsistent with ancient conceptions of identity. Suggested links between Sanskrit and the undeciphered Indus language are also unable to be proved. The unification of India under the unproven shared nationalistic interpretation of the Indus Civilisation serves as a powerful political tool for Hindu nationalism by emphasising the continuity and resulting legitimacy of Hinduism that has roots in the ancient past. Recent resurgence of Hindu nationalism, Hindutva, contributes to historic tensions between Hindu and Muslim populations in the subcontinent. 

Archaeology and Nationalism

These two examples, although from different contexts, demonstrate how archaeology and the ancient past can be used to create narratives of identity and common ideology that is encompassed in a nation state and promoted by political leaders. Although identity is an important aspect of the study of archaeology, which is centred around people, the emphasis on nationalism and use of archaeology for nationalistic purposes can serve to emphasise differences between nation states and groups of people, leading to conflict and unfavourable global outcomes. 

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