Are we losing our collective memory?

The looting of antiquities in war-torn countries has a significant impact on our culture and history

People visit the Assyrian Hall at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019.  Iraqi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Abdulameer al-Hamadani said the recovery of 1,300 pieces of antiquities that Jordanian authorities confiscated from smugglers is a "milestone" in Iraq's struggle to restore its lost heritage, and he called on the international community to support Iraq in its quest to recover its antiquities. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
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Around 4,000 years ago, a craftsperson fashioned a black stone to look like a resting duck. The object is beautiful, the duck’s neck curves back towards its tail feathers, and the detail in the eyes and beak speak to real artistry. Beyond aesthetics, this object was also used as some kind of weight, giving it a function in the story of humanity as well. This elegant stone bird went missing 16 years ago this month, along with around 15,000 other artefacts of similar beauty, cultural significance and historical importance.

The looting of the National Museum of Iraq on April 10, 2003, has been described as "cultural genocide" and "one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times". If we also add to this the looting of Iraq's archaeological sites and then add Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan to the equation too, we get a creeping sense of the magnitude of this problem. We might even get the sneaking suspicion that we are losing our memories. For what are antiquities if not tangible representations of who we were and, indeed, who we are?

In the 1950s at McGill University, Dr Ewen Cameron, an eminent psychiatrist, developed a treatment he called “psychic driving”. Central to his procedure was an attempt to erase patients’ memories and start again with a blank slate. Through the use of intensive electric shock therapy and a powerful cocktail of psychiatric drugs, Cameron partially succeeded in wiping away patients’ past recollections. The treatment, however, didn’t work; if anything it made patients’ initial symptoms worse. Memory loss is rarely a good thing, and the loss of antiquities on the scale seen in recent decades is like psychic driving on a national level.

Lost memories, however, are often recovered. Last year, based on smart detective work by scholars at the British Museum, a collection of eight looted antiquities were repatriated to Iraq. Similarly, in 2012 a collection of 842 looted objects were returned to Afghanistan. Border forces and police recovered some of the stolen Afghan artefacts, others, those that had already become part of private collections, were bought back by generous donors.

While some of these misappropriated artefacts are being recovered and returned, we still need to do much more to preserve our collective memories from being erased by those who would traffic in illicit antiquities. Because without demand, there would be no supply. We need to prevent conflict zones from becoming open buffets for opportunistic scavengers who would feast on the cultural heritage of humanity.

We need to prevent conflict zones from becoming open buffets for opportunistic scavengers who would feast on the cultural heritage of humanity

The loss of inanimate objects, of course, is never equal to the loss of human life. However, the loss of tangible heritage is not inconsequential for our well-being. Many of the objects and places looted or destroyed during these conflicts are representative of national and cultural identities. The loss of these items can have a significant negative impact on the way we see ourselves and the groups to which we belong. In the last few decades, a large body of scientific research has pointed to the fact that a strong sense of social identity appears to promote better physical and mental health.  Alexander Haslam, professor of psychology, renowned for his work on social identity, writes: “Social identities – and the notions of ‘us-ness’ that they embody and help create – are central to health and well-being.”

On an individual level, many of us also own attachment objects. These are usually things of sentimental value, typically items from childhood, like an old baby blanket or a teddy bear. Attachment objects provide a source of emotional comfort for their owners, especially when they are feeling down or stressed. A study published in the journal Cognition and Culture found that when people were asked to cut up a photograph of a cherished childhood item they showed a far greater stress reaction – as measured by galvanic skin response – than when asked to cut up a picture of a neutral object.

I see antiquities as the national equivalent of personal attachment objects. The loss of such iconic items undermines emotional stability at a national level.

Thankfully, this is an issue that is starting to gain the attention it deserves. In 2016, the UAE announced a global alliance to protect cultural antiquities from conflict. This international alliance of more than 40 countries and organisations funds protective measures and initiatives designed to inhibit the illegal trade of artefacts. Similarly, last week saw Abu Dhabi host the Culture Summit, an international gathering of leaders from diverse fields promoting the idea of culture and heritage as a force for global good and human well-being.

These international efforts are laudable. The loss of cultural antiquities in Syria, Iraq or Yemen is a loss for humanity, not just the residents of those nations. In a poem lamenting the felling of trees, the celebrated English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote: "After-comers cannot guess the beauty been". This line also sums up the loss associated with stolen and destroyed antiquities; it is a loss that will be felt most acutely by future generations, the after-comers. The more we can do to prevent this now, the better.

Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University