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Archaeology, Nasser's Egypt and the Making of the Post-War Past

William Carruthers

As the Cold War intensified and decolonisation gathered pace, what counted as knowledge of the past, and how did it intersect with these new, post-war political geographies and the nation-states connected to them? How was such knowledge made, how were disputes relating to it settled and what did its eventual forms look like? What types of evidence, derived from what instruments, was this knowledge based on, and what relationship did this knowledge have with the pasts that had enjoyed currency prior to World War Two? Moreover, who could make such knowledge, why could they do so, and what did this ability allow them to do in the world more widely? These questions sit at the heart of my work, which suggests that the constitution of post-war knowledge about the past—and in particular archaeological knowledge—needs to be understood beyond merely the imposition and spread of the new, globalising networks and technologies of heritage that emerged in this era. Those networks and technologies existed, but considering them from other, less top-down perspectives makes clear that neither their relationship with the past nor their coming into being was as straightforward as some accounts might suggest. From field to final publication, from grain of earth to monumental structure, the past could be awkward.

To explain why, my work concentrates on the series of acts connected to the fieldwork conducted throughout UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, which began in 1960. The Nubian campaign is remembered as contributing to the gestation of the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Resulting from Egypt’s construction of the Aswan High Dam and the flooding that would follow this act, the campaign led to the preservation of otherwise-to-be-submerged ancient temples that stood throughout the contiguous, newly independent border regions of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia. It also led to large-scale archaeological survey and excavation work on both sides of this geopolitical boundary. Due to these efforts and the promulgation of the World Heritage Convention, UNESCO unsurprisingly lauded the Nubian campaign as a total “victory” by the time work officially finished in 1980. Yet this victory was not quite so settled as has been suggested. My work concentrates on the Nubian campaign fieldwork as a useful, bottom-up heuristic to explain how and why the constitution of the post-war past actually occurred, and why we need to understand the networks and technologies of heritage more critically.