National Geographic Nederland is showing trailers for an upcoming show called ‘War Junk’ (what’s in a name?). I am greatly concerned about the nature of this show, and about the signal it conveys by the careless nature in which the people connected to the show are handling what is not only archaeological heritage, but potentially also the location of war graves, both (apparantly) in breach of national and local laws.
The show revolves around a small group of men, who apparently travel around visiting different battlegrounds. The trailer announces a visit to the sites of Operation Market Garden.
If they were only visiting the area, that would be fine, but the World War 2 heritage of the Netherlands and of Great Britain is exploited rather shockingly, and quite possibly illegally, by the presenters. They seem to be digging holes randomly in the Arnhem area, notably on the Ginkelse Heide, and they are showing artefacts to the camera in a manner which evokes nasty memories of ‘Nazi War Diggers’, another show with which National Geographic went beyond the pale.
In the Netherlands is illegal to conduct excavations with the express goal of unearthing historical objects without a license. The crude approach of the presenters gives me no reason to assume they are professional excavators, working for a licensed organisation. As per local legislation, it is certainly illegal to dig for w relics in (the region of and around) the city of Arnhem.
National Geographic Channel should not be promoting the looting of battle grounds and (possibly) war graves.
National Geographic Channel should also not promote the production of shows like War Junk and Nazi War Diggers by buying or producing and broadcasting them.
I call on National Geographic Channel to pull ‘War Junk’ from their schedule, like they did with ‘Nazi War Diggers’ and to reconsider buying or producing similar shows where archaeological heritage of any age and provenance is exploited for amusement purposes.
I’ve been watching a few episodes of a documentary about Canterbury Cathedral and it leaves me with mixed feelings, perhaps more so because this is the time when the christians celebrate the resurrection of their saviour.
The people featuring in the documentary; the archbishop, canons, both men and women, volunteers, stonemasons working on the actual building, are all charming, and obviously sincere in their motivations. It is easy to sneer about the many shortcomings of the various cults, but I could not really detect any hypocrisy in any of their words or actions. Well, outside of the ritual ones spoke during services, which are open to a hell of a lot of criticism. The closest shave was an anecdote and comment by the archbishop while addressing volunteers at one of the food banks run by the cathedral: “A man told me, that when he goes to the food bank, he doesn’t just receive a parcel of food, he also receives dignity and the feeling he counts as a human being because of the way the people of the food bank treat him.” That is of course very nice, and probably true, but then the archbishop ruins it, by claiming the christian foundation of the food bank and the people working there is responsible for that display of human kindness. No it is not, archbishop, that is common, human decency. Your particular cult cannot claim ownership of human kindness. On the other hand, the same archbishop is genuinely pleased when the gathering of anglican high priests votes for the inclusion of women in the higher ranks of their hierarchy and does not come across as a curmudgeon at all. Just like normal people, those priests are…
But on the whole the programme excellently shows the central place the cathedral has in the social and spiritual life of the English, not necessarily solely from a religious point of view. It’s an important ritual hub, an architectural and archaeological landmark and one of the central pillars of English history. It also shows the struggle of the people working there to maintain it and stop it from falling over. I was moved by a young apprentice stonemason who was very pleased that some of the mullions he made are going to be part of the restored, central window of the cathedral for the next 500 years or so. That’s pride in craftmanship, and pride in being part of something greater than yourself: a building, built to withstand the ages.
I get irritated when they show parts of the services, where the same, charming people recant the same hollow lines priests have been muttering for centuries to little avail, and I find myself smiling when they are jumping for joy upon hearing they were awarded 12 million pounds for restoration work, or when the female canon is drinking pink champagne to celebrate the victory I mentioned above. I am moved to tears by the hymns, simply because they are extremely beautiful and I am annoyed by the smoke-and-mirror theatricals announced by the archbishop for the Maundy Thursday service, to hammer home the message of Jesus’ sacrifice, and I was disgusted by him summoning the ‘Lord of Hosts’ to commemorate the fallen of the Great War. Lord of Hosts? Religion of peace much?
I am clearly in two minds about the whole thing, something which is probably a recurring thing for apostates: you may be convinced that there are no gods, but perhaps you (subconsciously) miss the comfort of belonging, which went the way of the dodo, along with your faith. And then one of the choral singers of the church says something which puts things into place for me (I paraphrase): “I’m not even sure whether it is faith or the place. You don’t get evangelised by coming to Canterbury. It is the building, the community, tradition, rituals, belonging, which made me stay.” And that is the central point for me, not intended to diminish anything anybody experiences at Canterbury, but isn’t it the place, with its centuries of social history, which makes Canterbury (and all those other focal places) special?
As the late great Douglas Adams put it: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful, without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
One of the last things I did before returning home was visit Kalavan in Gegharkunik Marz, close to the Azerbaijani border. Several of the old Hrazdan Gorge crew have split off this year to form a radical faction doing hard core excavations around the village. Towards the end of the season the others, including myself, paid them a visit, to count and counsel any possible survivors and, (of course) to get drunk in the process.
Kalavan may well be one of the most beautiful place I have visited in Armenia and it is most certainly the most secluded. In order to get there, you drive down a not-so bad-road for an hour-and-a-half along the shores of Lake Sevan, make a left into a rather bad road, follow that for an hour or so until it turns really bad and finally you turn left again, this time on to an absolutely terrible dirt track, which can only be navigated by four wheel drive. You follow that track for eight or nine kilometres (which takes about three quarters of an hour) and when it ends, you have reached Kalavan.
The village, with just over a hundred inhabitants, is hidden on the slopes of the beautiful valley of the Barepat River. The house in which the dig crew stays is partially made of fired bricks. A clear sign, according to one of the Armenian archaeologists, that it had originally been built by Azeri’s. “Armenians only build in stone” he said, his voice heaped with scorn about those silly brick users. And that is what makes this beautiful little village a tragic place too, but sadly tragedy is never far away on the Caucasus. Kalavan is a former Azeri village. The original inhabitants were Azeri’s from Armenia who, during the war in the nineties, either fled or were driven across the border into Azerbaijan, and the people living there now are Armenians from Azerbaijan who either fled or were driven across the border into Armenia. On the way to the village we also drove passed deserted and destroyed villages and abandoned Azeri cemeteries.
Despite its tragic history, Kalavan is a gorgeous place and the food, most of which is produced locally (no shops in Kalavan) is fantastic. The village is also home to Time Land (https://www.facebook.com/time.landfund/), an archaeological and ecological enterprise started by my Armenian colleague Robert Ghukasyan, who has turned the entire valley into a national park. It is also one of the cleanest places in Armenia. You will not find litter anywhere, much unlike much of the rest of Armenia, where, if you are in need of a plastic bag, all you need to do is lift your arm and make a grabbing motion. Odds are you will catch one of the millions of bags flying around on the breeze everywhere.
After the evening feast, which ended rather predictably, I dragged my cot outside on to the porch, and fell asleep looking at the shooting starts in the clear night sky, only to wake up twenty minutes later with my glasses jammed into the side of my face. Other than that I slept solidly until the next morning, when I woke up to the sound of pigs rooting through the garden below me. It took me a few seconds to get my bearing, but as soon as I remembered where I was, I sat up and stared at the view for a while. You don’t get to see that from a Dutch bedroom window!
Last Saturday, when the plane landed at Schiphol airport (I say landed, it was more thrown at the runway) I was greeted by now customary mixed bag of feelings after a month in Armenia: glad to be home and homesick for the place I just left. It always takes me a few days to adjust back to the Netherlands, to the straight, well-kept streets with their neatly trimmed shrubs, to the neat rows of houses and to the overall retirement home garden orderliness of the place.
On my first tour in Armenia, my overwhelming impression was one of chaos. Brilliant chaos, but chaos nevertheless. I soon learned that it may look rather chaotic, but underneath there is a sort of order, just not the kind of order which would be immediately apparent to the Germanic, Northwest European eye. I have become very familiar with (most of) that order in the intervening years, so I can move in the streets and social circles of Armenia with relative ease. I am also convinced that the Netherlands would benefit greatly from a healthy dose of that different order-masked-as-chaos.
Armenia is many things, but (luckily!) it is nothing like a retirement home garden.
*վէրջ means ‘finished’, ‘done’, ‘the end’. I think.
Last Saturday we visited Ara Ler, one of the many extinct volcanoes in Armenia. While I had been around volcanoes and excavated on their flanks, I had never before been in one. Ara Ler has a caldera which has, at one point blown out towards the Southwest point. That must have been some event; the entire Southwest side of the mountain is gone. Some of the (younger…) people on the team went on a hike around the caldera wall to reach the summit. Suren and I climb up the inside of the caldera, but eventually did not reach the top. The inside of the caldera is partially overgrown with shrubs, bushes and small trees and that is exactly the kind of place the bears of the Lesser Caucasus like to use to pass the day. “It’s okay,” Suren says, after telling me a story of an American archaeology student being attacked by a bear on this same mountain just weeks ago. “Armenian bears are not very big; like that.” he says, while pointing at a rock the size of a small car.
I heard that story only days earlier from Hayk, another Armenian archaeologist, who was witness to the attack. A group of them stumbled upon the bear, which ran away, unfortunately right into the path of the girl, who had stayed behind. Startled by this ‘ambush’, the bear lashed out at her and then tried to bite her in the head. Even though she had been injured by the first attack, she looked up and straight up punched the bear in the face. The bear, apparantly not expecting this, turned and did a runner. Hayk had to carry the girl down the mountain on his back. Regardless of how terrible such an attack is, she has won bragging rights in her circle of friends for years to come!
Our ascent ends on a rocky promontory surrounded by two converging gullies full of trees and bushes. Even though Armenian bears are obviously only the size of a small car, I think Suren and I both felt things were becoming a little beary. Circumnavigating the beariness would have meant going all the way back down and circling around, so we count our blessings and stay where we are, having an excellent few hours before descending back down.
Later in the week we excavate a test trench on the flanks of Hatis, another volcano in the area. The panorama to the South is gobsmacking, with Yerevan and Ararat all but hidden from view.
The heat is virtually unbearable, and while Early Palaeolithic artefacts are passing through my hands and I am choking on the dust in the trench, all I can think of is how tragically cruel it is, that I have to be so far away from the woman and dog I love so much, to be here in Armenia and do what I love more than pretty much everything else.
I am sitting in my regular spot in the Café Hovhannes in the garden of the dig house in Yerevan. As usual, I am sweating like a nun caught in a sex shop while I am trying to work. Nor Geghi, the dig site, still lives up to its unofficial name ‘the Blast Furnace’ so fieldwork is a gruelling affair, but none of that is new or particularly exciting. The problem with going back to a place over and over again is that you run out of things to write about, even when you like it so much. So all in all I am not sorry that there is a good chance that the project will relocate to the north of Armenia next year, right on the Georgian border. New landscapes, new places, new sites.
Luckily the Armenians still manage to wrongfoot me every time. On the plateau above the site in Nor Geghi lies a repurposed military base, now apparently the hub of Armenia’s emergency communications network. We have to go through the gate to get to the site and inside is a small sort of guards house, always occupied by the same small gaggle of idle looking, post-middle aged Armenians. We often make fun of them, because all they seem to do is sit there, get hammered on vodka, and act surly when they open the gates, but they’re nice to us and on occasion have offered us food, coffee and (of course) vodka in the past.
By the guards house is also a water hose with a tap where we get ice cold water to take down to the site. The other day water ran out mid day so I walked back up to the base to refill some bottles. One of the guys came out of the house and called me over: ‘One minute!’ I walked over to the door and I was ushered into the room with a table decked out for lunch. Inside I was offered food and of course vodka and a conversation of sorts ensued. Even though I had to give up my Armenian lessons with Mr. Geragoussian, his troubles and frustrations at my sluggishness are not entirely wasted. We were able to have a conversation of sorts somehow, even though none of them really spoke any English. One of the chaps asked me where I was from and when I said ‘holandakan’ he burst into a flurry of words which I could not understand, but at some point I made out the word ‘tsaghik’, which means flower.
‘Ah, alright, I get it: flowers, Netherlands’ I thought, but then he asked ‘Vincent van Gogh?’ and when I nodded and ‘ha ha’-ed a lot, he smiled like a madman.* By now we are on the second vodka and one of the other men asks him something about van Gogh in a rather dismissive tone. And then they both erupted into a ten minutes long, heated argument, with much gesticulating and shouting, about the merits of Dutch postimpressionism and expressionism compared to Russian and Armenian expressionism. They got incredibly worked up and it was a magnificent display, even more so because I was only able to get very little of it, but they were both flinging names of artists at each other like they really knew what they were bickering about. After a while they calmed down, which naturally was celebrated with a third shot of vodka. I think the van Gogh guy won.
Even though I was enjoying the whole scene immensely, I needed to extricate myself before a fourth round was going to be be tabled so I got up a little wobbly, thanked them for their hospitality and staggered over to the water bottles outside and then on, back to the site.
Old Armenian geezers bumming around in a small guards house may still be doing little more than drinking vodka, but there is definitely more to them than meets the eye.
* ‘Ha’ is Armenian vernacular for ‘yes‘, it has nothing to do with faking laughter. To the contrary in fact, it is supposed to be pronounced on a rather doleful tone.
An innocent enough, random looking number on a random looking map, which completely belies the terrible ordeals it fails to convey. This number indicates the positions of Pionier Bataillon 227 of the 227th Infantry Division in July 1944, near the town of Agusalu in present day Estonia, where they were probably trying desperately not to get chewed up by the merciless, relentless Moloch called Operation Bagration.
That makes this the last known general location of my grandfather before he was shot in September 1944. Somewhere between here and Riga in Latvia, probably closer to Riga than Agusalu, some Russian (who would probably have rather shot him in the head) made sure I am here to write this by giving him his ‘Heimatschuss’. So thank you, Russian soldier. If it wasn’t for your poor (but not too poor!) aim, I would not be here.
Whichever way you look it, my grandfather was one of the bad guys, and in the autumn of 1944 the Wehrmacht was reaping what it had sown the previous years, so on the face of it there is little grounds for pity. But he was my grandfather and I do feel pity. I feel terrible about what the Nazis made him do, especially in the knowledge that other ideological overlords are fooling / forcing poor schmucks like him to do the same things as we speak.
‘Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look.’ is a quote by science historian James Burke, inscribed on one of the walls of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. As an archaeologist I believe he is right, but this quote and others similar sometimes feel like worn out clichés. Nobody ever seems to heed the lessens we can clearly learn from the past, from invading Russia while having access to history books telling you it is a very, very bad idea, to climate denial in the face of detailed knowledge about what disastrous events even small oscillations in temperature can cause.
And recently forces across the globe are taking this denial a step further by actively attacking the importance and the role of science in society. Anybody with a degree at Google University feels their opinion is on a par with scientific consensus and should be considered with equal validity. And the current government of the United States advocates the teaching of evolution as ‘theory’ instead of fact (thereby deliberately corrupting the meaning of the word ‘theory’ in science) and calls global warming a ‘Chinese conspiracy’. They ridicule science and scientists as fantasists or even corrupt agents of industry (‘Big Pharma’) and the internet follows suit.
And that is a terribly dangerous development. I am not saying that out of arrogance or because my ego is bruised, I am saying that because society needs science! Not only to provide actual facts for politicians to politicise with, instead of the other way around, but also because science is not all about global warming, nuclear fusion and finding a way to end world hunger. It influences countless smaller, daily, but very significant things in our lives.
Our entire way of existing is simply impossible without science. Science as a method may be only a few centuries old, but science as an idea, as a state of mind is positively ancient. And not the exclusive domain of scientists. The notion that you can adapt your environment to improve your life, not accepting the status quo, finding ways to improve things, learning from your mistakes and successes, starting over again and again in the face of failure, all that begins when the first hominid comes up with the idea of shaping a piece of stone to improve its function, even if these ideas are of course not deliberately formulated. Or rather perhaps with another hominid who sees what is going on and figures he can do one better.
The beauty of it is, that this thirst for innovation is in essence not a human property, it is a simple exponent of natural selection, as we can see over and over again with countless other animals on the same path. That path does not necessarily follow the same trajectory as ours, and I’m not saying that crows turning sticks into tools ‘do’ science, but this process is definitely the root of all things scientific, and of our insanely complicated and technology driven way of life and its commodities.
It is that process of constant trial and error, which eventually branched off into a ‘separate’ discipline called science somewhere around half past Middle Ages, but the branch is inseparably intertwined with the rest of society. Virtually every aspect of our way of life today is rooted in a cumulative body of knowledge resulting from scientific research. Science benefits you!
Society needs science to thrive. And science needs society to thrive.
I arrived back home and was very happy to see my wife and dog again, have a shower, sit on a sofa, sleep in my own bed. But now I am restless and listless at the same time. For a while I didn’t know what it was; was I tired, jet-lagged? I think I need to get Armenia out of my system. This morning I walked the streets of Leiden and they seemed too quiet, too sleepy. I never thought I would ever say that I miss the crazy traffic of Yerevan, but the sudden absence of the constant din and life threatening antics of the drivers unnerves me.
I need to get Armenia out of my system and readjust to the Netherlands, but I do not want to do that. Not just yet. I really did not want to leave. H. accused me of getting up too late in the middle of the night on purpose to miss my flight. I know there would not have been much point in staying in the sense that the fieldwork season is essentially over. Most of my colleagues have also left or are leaving in the next few days, but I want to hear the long slow lilt of H. and his father which always makes their Yerevan Armenian sound as if they are arguing about something. I want to sit on the long wooden bench in the Café Hovhannes and spend the day drawing artefacts or reading papers on archaeology, with a beer on the side in the afternoon. I want that day to slowly merge into drinking beer in the Café Hovhannes until too late, with the papers somewhere on or under the table. I wish I could go to Lagonid on Nalbandyan street and have Lebanese food tonight.
I need to get Armenia out of my system but I cannot get the hauntingly beautiful hymns of Komitas I heard at Geghard monastery last Friday out of my head. I walked up to a corridor chiselled out of the rocks and I heard music coming from around the corner at the end. I walked in slowly, trying not to stumble on the uneven floor (the only thing the masons of Geghard failed to make perfectly nice and smooth for unknown reasons), drawn in by the music, but apprehensive of the disappointment if it would turn out to be a recording. I looked into the room and here, in this small chapel carved out of the mountain itself, were five people singing to a small group of listeners, illuminated only by the for once shy sunlight falling in through an oculus in the dome. I walked behind the listeners to the other end of the room and leaned my back against one of the columns. The ancient, carved walls and pillars, the light of the sun with its thin shroud of dust particles, the wonderful acoustics of the room, the serene voices of the singers and the soul piercing sadness of the slow music were almost too much to bear. The cool rock of the column pressing into my back felt as if it was comforting, embracing me as the music moved me to tears. Not a lot of music has the power to move me to tears, but this certainly had. Has. Perhaps the knowledge that I had to leave soon gave the music extra poignancy or perhaps I am now reading too much into the experience because I feel homesick for Armenia, but this, this was as if the mountain itself was singing to me.
I need to get her out of my system, but Mother Armenia is a fickle mistress and she has got a hold on me.