Art, Archaeology, Power and Propaganda


The Jewish festival of Hanukkah takes place next month, and these days it celebrates the miracle of the sacred oil lasting eight days rather than one, and continuing to provide Light. It used to celebrate the event that immediately preceded the miracle, the defeat of Antiochus IV. Hanukkah used to be one of the more minor festivals, but since it tends to fall around the same period as Christmas it has been celebrated increasingly by Jewish-Americans and become a major holiday there. Ideas change, propaganda evolves, but I am willing to bet that, as they often do before important religious holidays, that the Israel Antiquities Authority will announce an archaeological discovery to remind Jews of their ancestral ties to the land of Israel.

The ancients built monuments and erected statues as part of their propaganda campaigns, and both history and archaeology remain part of a nation’s identity and continues to be used for propaganda purposes today. Sometimes this is a bad thing, sometimes it is a good thing.

The Parthenon sculptures that Elgin brought to London served as great ambassadors for the Greek people in the early 19th century. Finally people realised that Johann Winckelmann was wrong, that Roman sculpture was not superior to Greek sculpture, and that in fact quite the reverse was true and that the Romans had copied the Greeks. Greek culture, for too long hidden behind the Ottomans, was something to be admired and this led directly to the formation of a Philhellenic movement which raised funds for the Greeks to support their struggle for independence. Whatever view one may hold today about Elgin, at the time his actions led directly to money that bought arms and helped free Greece from the Ottomans.

Obviously not all propaganda is necessarily good or factually accurate. Romania’s name means land of the Romans, even though it was merely one of many regions the Romans conquered and never their homeland. Skopje had many names in Antiquity, but Macedonia was not one of them. Admittedly the ancient Macedonians conquered the area, but Alexander the Great also conquered modern Iran and Afghanistan, and neither of those have any claim to being ancient Macedonia!

Most of us are aware that school history books in India skip over the Mughuls, a dynasty that built some of the most famous Indian buildings including the Taj Mahal, but which modern Indians prefer to ignore since they were Muslim conquerors. Indian Muslims were mostly sent to Pakistan after the Partition, and of course Pakistan is now the enemy. Unfortunately the Tamils have also been sidelined. The Taj Mahal is promoted by the Indian Tourist Board when it suits them, as is the Buddhist heritage of India, but that too is dismissed by modern Indian propaganda.

Long after I had finished my PhD I wanted to learn more about Eastern art and culture so that I would be better able to understand the links between east and west in Antiquity, so I signed up for a postgraduate course. One lecturer was Indian and teaching a course on Hindu architecture and decided to start off with one of the oldest Indian temples, Temple 17 at Sanchi. Trying to engage the dozen of us in the class, she asked me “Deborah, what do you think was found inside?” … and I of course answered “a statue of Buddha”. Clearly very pleased with herself at ‘remembering’ my name, she then talked down to me as if had been a five year old child, gently rebuking me “Deborah, do you honestly think there would have been a Buddha in a Hindu temple?” The answer to that question was of course not. But the problem was that I had read the excavation reports, and was perfectly aware that a statue of Buddha had been excavated inside Temple 17 at Sanchi, and that almost every non-Indian scholar in the world agreed that it was a Buddhist temple built at a period when India was a Buddhist country. The lecturer was Indian, and rather than doing actual research, she was repeating the propaganda from Indian text books. The Indian Tourist Board at that time had filled the London underground with posters promoting the Buddhist heritage of India, but Indian academics were still denying the basic facts.

To add to the ridiculous claims that the Amphipolis monument was first Roman, and then that Mrs Peristeri and her very talented team were excavating badly, now there are accusations that Amphipolis is being used to promote political propaganda.

Even if that claim is true, does it do any harm? No. Everyone has been aware of the glory of Athens for centuries, and now a little bit of the spotlight is being shed on the ancient glories of Macedonia. The Macedonians didn’t step onto the stage of history with Philip II and shine with Alexander the Great. One of the great victories over the Persians was the annihilation of the Persian army by Alexander I at Amphipolis. Euripides spent time at the court in Macedonia, writing several plays before dying there in 406 BC - as did many other great Greek cultural figures. Alexander the Great sprang from, and was a product of this background.

And many ancient Greek monuments were erected to demonstrate power and promote propaganda. The Parthenon celebrates both the victory at Marathon and Greek superiority over the Persians which allowed them to defeat them. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus included a cult to the deceased and was a giant sculptural celebration of him and his ancestors, whilst the precinct included a vase given by Xerxes to Artemisia I of Halicarnassus, whom they claimed as an ancestor, and the recently found eulogy describing the life of his father Hecatomnus. Philip II hired Mausolus’ court portraitist Leochares to create sculptures of himself and his family for the Philippeion at Olympia, to promote his own agenda through art.

Whoever built the Kasta Monument at Amphipolis made a number of political points through it. The colossal size was clearly designed to show that one of the most important people in the world would be buried in it. The Sphinxes were both symbols of Amphipolis, used on their coins, and associated certainly with Alexander in the Augustan period. The circular shape was rare and harder to create than a square, so was intended to show the newest skills available at the time. Almost everything there symbolised something, and whether it was intended for Alexander the Great or someone equally powerful, Amphipolis was a supreme work of propaganda par excellence.

Unfortunately Greece is struggling to emerge from an economic crisis, and over the last decades not all archaeological projects were as well funded as they would have been in an ideal world – nor are they elsewhere, nor will they ever be. But if news of the great discoveries being made at Amphipolis lifts the spirits of the people, and gives them something to be proud of … how can that be a bad thing?

Art has always been used to promote propaganda, but that does not always have to make it negative.

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