What would Batman think about the Persepolis Fortification Tablets? Debating Heritage and Archaeology’s Place in the Social Sciences

I’m currently finishing my Honours degree (equivalent of a fourth year for those outside Australia) in Brisbane, Australia. My Day of Archaeology was spent in the classroom, taking a research colloquium course to finish the coursework component of my degree. Luckily for this post, our class today was particularly interesting and gives some insight into where archaeology is positioned as a discipline (in the Australian university system at least).

This interdisciplinary colloquium includes students from the four social science disciplines, archaeology, anthropology, sociology and criminology. Over the course of our degrees this is the first course that has brought us all together.  We’re here to learn from each other, discuss our similarities and differences, and ultimately become better researchers. It turns out that even though we are in the one ‘school’ we know so very little about each other, stereotypes abounded in our first class. Archaeologists apparently alternate between looking for treasure and dinosaurs, anthropologists seem to mostly follow Indigenous people around pestering them with questions, sociologists are reportedly obsessed with the philosophy of long dead white men, and criminologists seemingly harbour desires to be Batman. Blatant stereotyping aside, the social sciences are united by a rigorous interest in humanity, a desire to better understand its many nuances and intricacies, and ultimately to contribute our knowledge back to society.

Today’s class features a debate over the potential sale of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets in order to pay off a debt that Iran was judged to owe the victims of the 1997 Hamas bombing in Jerusalem (this is a serious and intensely political case on which you can read more about here). This debate brought up serious questions about cultural heritage, its role in the creation of identity, value in an irreplaceable source of information on the past, and whether items of cultural heritage should be exempt from treatment as ‘assets’.

Clay Tablet, Persepolis Museum, Iran. Image by Pentocelo via Wikimedia

Clay Tablet, Persepolis Museum, Iran. Image by Pentocelo via Wikimedia

What I found most interesting about this debate were the different perspectives that we all had on this one case. Whilst we all recognised the importance of the tablets and emphasised the global nature of cultural heritage, each discipline had a different focus. The sociologists were most interested in aspects of power and control, criminologists over the legality of the case and the commodification of heritage objects, the anthropologists were concerned with the issue of state control over material culture and the intertwining of cultures, and the archaeologists focused on the preservation of cultural heritage and the integrity of these priceless collections.

It seems unfortunate that this is the first time we have been united in our degrees as it is so clear that we have much to learn from our fellow social science disciplines. There is a tendency to put on blinkers and not see the valuable contributions and perspectives that others have on your own discipline. I’m not sure if any of the archaeology students were quite prepared for the unique criminological or sociological take on what you’d assume was a straight archaeological case. As an archaeology student one of the most important takeaways of this day has been the importance of being interdisciplinary and the value of being open to other perspectives.

Off now to rid the streets of crime…