Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Blitzkrieg Archaeology

There’s an old joke about a farmer who shows a visitor an axe and says, “This here axe has been in my family for eight generations.”

“It must be very sturdy,” says the visitor.

“You bet it is. In all those years, we only had to replace the head twice, and the handle three times.”

The government of Burma takes a somewhat similar approach to its architectural treasures. In hopes of attracting Chinese and Thai tourists, it’s “restoring” its ancient temples by building new sites on top of the old ones.

"They are carrying out reconstruction based on complete fantasy," said an American archeologist who asked not to be identified for fear of being banned from the country. "It completely obliterates any historical record of what was there."
A Burmese historian describes it more simply as “blitzkrieg archaeology.”

In an example of the economic efficiency that makes Burma a favored business partner of Dick Cheney and China, the new temples are being built of cheap, shoddy materials, even though one of the reasons for the rebuilding frenzy is that many of the old buildings were damaged in an earthquake:
The ancient bricks and mortar were more durable than those used now. Even today, the old bricks are stronger than the new ones. Bang one of each kind together and it's the new one that breaks. But officials said it would be too costly to copy the old materials.
Fragments of the old buildings are inserted, when convenient, into the new, economical ones. (It’s tempting to offer this as a metaphor for BushCo’s attempts to cannibalize and retool convenient fragments of the American past. But why bother with metaphor when the reality is already insultingly explicit?)

One expert compares the regime’s actions to Mussolini’s destruction and reinvention of Rome, and in so doing, arrives at one of those penetrating insights for which Western liberalism is justly celebrated:
"The more oppressive a regime the more prone to build this kind of huge, useless and ridiculous structure….To use so much money for these useless buildings in a country where most people do not have schools for their children, electric power, roads and other facilities is, I think, a crime."
Well…yes. But this implies that brutal impoverishment is a side effect of the “ridiculous structures,” instead of a monument in its own right. Slums and palaces equally reflect a government's aspirations. And for certain types of power, they’re equal sources of pride.


Anonymous said...

Please, please, please, could you class your posts into categories, like "Friday Hope", "Friday Nudibranch" and "others" ?
I would love to have all this beautiful pictures of vrasicolored sea-slugs all in one place.


Phila said...


Not on Blogger, as far as I know. I'd have to switch to Typepad (or something like it).

Not sure why Blogger doesn't allow it...seems like a pretty popular feature. Hard to know what categories I'd use, though. I guess I could do "hope," "no hope," and "nudibranchs."