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Refugees from the war in Ukraine cross the border into Poland

[Attribution: mvs.gov.ua [CC by 4.0]]

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In the first sign of a substantive practical reaction to the invasion of Ukraine by a UK heritage body, the Government’s statutory advisor on heritage matters, Historic England, has told thePipeLine that it is in discussion with national and international partners with a view to offering meaningful support to Ukraine. However, other leading bodies in UK archaeology, including the Council for British Archaeology [CBA], the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists [CIfA], and the Federation of Archaeology Managers and Employers [FAME], have so far not responded publicly to the growing humanitarian and cultural crisis brought about by President Putin’s illegal invasion.

Almost two weeks into the President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine the level of human suffering is sobering and heart-breaking. According to the United Nations the conflict has seen some 1,123 verified civilian casualties: 364 killed, including 25 children, and 759 injured [the real figure is acknowledged as being much higher], while, according to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, some two million Ukrainians have crossed the country’s western borders as refugees.

Analysts fear millions more may yet do so if the conflict continues.

Meanwhile, while Poland and other European Union countries have acted quickly to deal with the situation, waiving visa stipulations for Ukrainians, and offering refugees support such as educations, health care and the right to work, in the UK the Government of Boris Johnson has been accused of acting too slowly, and grudgingly, in allowing refugees from Ukraine into the UK, even those with family already in the country. A visa sponsorship scheme for individuals and companies to sponsor Ukrainians to come to Britain announced by Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, has also proved controversial, with critics pointing out it does not yet exist.

This is in marked contrast to the apparent generosity of the British public, with polling by You Gov recording a marked rise in the percentage of the population willing to see tens of thousands, or more, refugees from Ukraine admitted to the country, and which saw over £85 million being raised by the Disasters Emergency Committee Ukraine appeal in just a few days.

Now three of the UK’s major representative bodies in archaeology can also be accused of being equally slow in responding to the developing crisis and of being out of step with their members, many of whom are displaying the flag of Ukraine on their Social Media profiles.

This is because, in spite of growing evidence of the accidental, or deliberate, damage to cultural and educational sites, and the threat to archaeologists and others working in the heritage sector from the war, at the time of writing [9 March 2022], of the major representative UK Archaeological bodies, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, which states it guards professional ethics and standards in archaeology; the Council for British Archaeology, which represent the bridge between professional and community archaeology; and the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers which represents contracting archaeological units, none appear to have issued any form of comment about the conflict in Ukraine on their websites, or Social Media feeds.

Neither have CIfA, the CBA or FAME, individually or collectively with others, expressed concern at the implications of the conflict for the cultural heritage of Ukraine, including its seven World Heritage Sites which would be regarded as being of “outstanding universal value”.

Also absent is the offer of any form of support or expertise to UK and international efforts to support Ukraine’s heritage and cultural sector.

This lack of response stands in marked contrast to the actions of archaeological bodies in Europe such as the German Archaeological Institute and the European Association of Archaeologists.

On 28 February, four days after the invasion, the German Archaeological Association published a statement condemning President Putin’s “illegal war of aggression against Ukraine” and promising to support and action, expressing “unreserved solidarity”, to colleagues and the people of Ukraine as well as including links to programmes offering practical support to archaeologists in Ukraine who might want to come to German and other European universities as students or researchers.

The European Archaeological Association [EAA] was even faster off the mark issuing an initial statement condemning the invasion on 24 February. In a second statement, issued on 4 March, the EAA suspended cooperation with Russia and its ally Belarus, while stating its support for colleagues in the two countries who oppose the war instigated by President Putin.

The EAA has chosen not to operate a boycott of all contacts with Russian and Belarusian archaeologists. Instead the body has invited them to attend the 28th EAA Annual meeting as individuals, while archaeologists from Ukraine wishing to attend will have membership and attendance fees waived.

The EAA also published links and advice to anyone in Ukraine wishing to cross borders to escape the conflict.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites [ICOMOS] concluded its statement on Ukraine with another offer of practical support, stating,

ICOMOS is at the disposal of its colleagues and the authorities in Ukraine for any support or advice it may be able to give in safeguarding cultural heritage or risk preparedness measures.

By contrast, in spite of the expertise embodied in the UK heritage sector, to the time of writing no British archaeological organisation has been so proactive.

Neither has the umbrella organisation for UK heritage bodies, the Heritage Alliance, issued a statement on behalf of its members, let alone offered any practical support for the efforts to protect cultural heritage, and more importantly heritage workers, in Ukraine.

However, the British Academy has issued a message of solidarity stating in part,

“We send our support and friendship at this time to the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and to all those Ukrainian students, academics and university staff for whom the safety to learn, teach and research is no longer guaranteed. We will continue to stand up for academic freedom and acknowledge the courage that many Russian researchers are showing in speaking out against this invasion.”

The Society of Antiquaries of London was also relatively quick to comment issuing a statement on 1 March which supported the calls from UNESCO and Blue Shield International for respect for international humanitarian law, in particular the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the subsequent Protocols, issued in 1954 and 1999, which require signatories to ensure that cultural heritage in conflict zones is protected.

A spokesperson for Historic England echoed the importance of the Hague Convention, telling thePipeLine,

“We are deeply concerned by the escalating violence in Ukraine where lives are being lost, homes destroyed and cultural heritage is under attack. Our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine and all those affected.

Making the point that,

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“Precious places, objects and stories are often deliberately targeted in conflict and destroying cultural heritage strikes at the heart of communities.”

the spokesperson pointed out also that,

“The UK is a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention and has a duty to protect cultural heritage in time of war, as is Russia.”

UNESCO itself has stated it is taking part in a crash programme to identify cultural sites and display the internationally recognised Blue Shield symbol.

The UN organisation will also be holding a Special Session on 15 March in order to,

“to examine the impact and consequences of the current situation in Ukraine in all aspects of UNESCO’s mandate”.

UNESCO has also expressed concerns about attacks on education infrastructure and on the media in Ukraine, both of which also fall within its remit.

However, the UN organisation has also faced criticism for not moving, or cancelling, the 45th session of its World Heritage Committee, which is due to be held between 19 and 30 June in Kazan, Russia, with the Russian Federation in the chair.

It should be added that officials may be concerned that the body continues to be seen as impartial, and that such action would be inappropriate unless called for under a resolution from the UN General Assembly.

In Britain there have also been examples of individual attempts to generate at least discussion about the implications for the UK heritage community of events in Ukraine and what that community might be able to do at a more practical level to assist archaeologists, museum curators and communities who might find themselves in the areas under attack.

These include a Twitter Space discussion on Friday 4 March organised by Dr Peter Campbell, Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Under Threat at the Cranfield Forensic Institute [cards on the table, the author of this article took part in the discussion at the invitation of the organiser].

Opening with a contribution from a museum professional from Mosul, Iraq, offering first hand experience of trying to conserve and recover heritage in what had been a bitterly contested war zone, participants discussed the background to trafficking and heritage crime in conflict zones, attempting to identify issues which the heritage community might need to address, and the means of supporting colleagues in Ukraine who are attempting to protect heritage and culture, both physically and digitally.

With an information war proceeding alongside the “hot war” on the ground, the participants discussed also the fundamental importance of verifying information and not reinforcing misinformation.

This is not easy given the proliferation of social media accounts purporting to report from the front lines, some of which are deliberately partisan, and some which publish, or recycle, fake or misrepresented video as clickbait and propaganda.

An example of the importance of not rushing to judgement, share and retweet, is the missile strike on the Kyiv TV mast on 1 March, which reportedly killed five people.

The attack, which undoubtedly happened, was initially described as potentially an attack on the adjacent memorial to the massacre of Babyn Yar, by among others, the Ukraine outlet Euromaiden Press. The alleged targeting of the Babyn Yar memorial appeared to undermine the false narrative set up by President Putin, that the, so called, “Special Operation” in Ukraine was tasked with “denazifying” the country. How could President Putin claim to be “denazifying” Ukraine when at the same time, attacking the memorial to the largest mass shooting of Jewish people committed by the Nazi’s during the Holocaust?

However, an account from the site by freelance journalist Oz Katerji, subsequently published in Jewish News, suggests that the memorial was almost certainly the victim of collateral damage and had not been targeted deliberately by the Russian armed forces.

It is not just such high profile sites as the Babyn Yar memorial which are at risk. There are now a number of verified reports of damage to cultural buildings in the contested areas of Ukraine, including at least one museum and a number of churches. Although, again it must be stressed, what is not clear is how many, if any, such sites were targeted deliberately, and how many represent collateral damage resulting from legal military action, or are the result of incompetence, or carelessness on the part of the armed forces engaged in the war.

Indeed, another important cultural site reported damaged is the Russian Orthodox Assumption Cathedral in the centre of Kharkiv, a Russian speaking city close to the border with the Russian Federation, which has been under attack since the early hours of the invasion. A perverse incident given that the President Putin has stated the aim of the specific and limited military operation, is to protect Ukraine’s Russian speakers.

However, it is likely that other heritage crimes may be taking place out of sight, even of the social media and smart phones where most reports of damage to cultural and heritage sites originate.

It has long been recognised, including in UNESCO’s 2018 publication “Fighting the illicit trafficking of cultural property a toolkit for law enforcement“, that war zones are a fertile ground for looters and traffickers of portable artefacts, who can come from any side in a conflict.

Even prior to the 2022 invasion Ukraine, and Russian occupied Crimea, were already noted for the illegal excavation and trafficking of artefacts ranging from Greek material from the settlements of the classical period on the Black Sea, through the early medieval period, to relics from the great battles of World War Two.

Actors in the trade range from individuals operating at a sole trader level, for example selling through auction web sites, to criminal gangs exploiting trading networks to transport illicit goods.

Many of these trafficked relics are not only valuable and collectable in their own right. They can also be tied to modern political ideas of identity and sense of place, for example the origins of the medieval Kyiv and the Russian state, which have helped lay the ideological foundations for the current conflict.

As an example of the worst case which may now face Ukraine a document, presented to UNESCO’s Executive Board in September 2021, claimed that, in Russian occupied Crimea, seized illegally from Ukraine in 2014,

“Russia implements this policy [of destroying the cultural heritage of the Crimea and Ukraine] in several ways to influence the cultural sector: it illegally exports art artefacts from the occupied Crimea, which it then exhibits in Russia in accordance with its own curatorial narratives; conducts unauthorized archaeological excavations; erases traces of the cultural presence of the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula, while turning their religion into a weapon against themselves.”

One question is what steps international bodies such as Interpol, UNESCO and the European Union, and national bodies such as Historic England in its heritage crime role, can and will take to monitor and interdict any new trafficking routes which arise as a result of the conflict.

In that regard it may be significant that the spokesperson for Historic England told thePipeLine,

“We are engaging with key national and international partners about how Historic England can offer meaningful support now and in the future.”

It is also the case that Ukraine has brought a case before the International Court of Justice accusing Russia of war crimes during the invasion. In due course, if the evidence is there [and doubtless people are currently trying to gather such evidence], the charges may be extended to include cultural crimes under the 1954 Hague Convention, if only to put down a marker for those who might engage in future conflicts and think they can attack cultural sites with impunity.

However, attempts to monitor and support the culture sector in Ukraine may be held back by a lack of capacity in some nations, particularly in NATO’s leading member, and permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United States.

On 25 February The New York Times reported that a US Army programme to replicate the famous “Monuments Men” of World War Two, was yet to get off the ground. The article quoted project partner, Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, as saying,

“There are a lot of growing pains,” and she added,

“There is this capability that the Army ought to have that’s not available to commanders at the moment.”

In the context of that apparent failure others in the international heritage community are not waiting for such action or a lead from above.

A group of academics and museum professionals have instituted the Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online [SUCHO] project, which has set out to use web archiving services such as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, to identify, and preserve securely, Ukraine’s digital cultural archives which might be threatened by the conflict.

Meanwhile Dr Campbell hopes the discussions he started will be developed in the coming weeks.

The trade union Prospect, through its Prospect Archs Twitter feed has also been active in retweeting information to its members and followers, including the response of the EAA to the threats brought about by the invasion, and about ways UK based archaeologists can assist. The independent British Archaeological Jobs Resource [BAJR] Facebook feed has also carried posts about Ukraine and links to community based initiatives, including by ICAMOS Ukraine.

In the end, while community based initiatives such as SUCHO can often act in a way which is more nimble and responsive than official channels, what they cannot do is offer leadership, resources, and coordination in the way that NGO’s and Government bodies can, and it is here that in the UK at least there may be concerns that leadership is failing, or is even absent.

In particular, CIfA, FAME and the CBA in particular often state that they have the contacts giving them the ability to speak directly to Government and international bodies on behalf of archaeologists, while FAME claims on its website that it is “The Voice of Commercial Archaeology”.

As of now that voice, and those voices, appear silent on perhaps the most significant military, humanitarian, and cultural crisis to afflict Europe since 1945.

Members of those organisations may well find themselves asking, is that good enough?

thePipeLine asked the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the Council for British Archaeology, the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport a series of questions about responses to the crisis over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including and whether they were in discussions with the Home Office over sponsoring visas for archaeologists from Ukraine.

To the time of publication none of these bodies have replied.

If you need to fact check [and we all should], or you are concerned about passing on disinformation and misinformation, there are a number of excellent websites and guides either exposing fake news or explaining how to spot such material.

The open source intelligence experts are Bellingcat. This is their Resources Page which has guides and tools for all levels of IT experience or none.

Most mainstream news sources also carry guides to spotting the lies and fakes. This is from the BBC’s News Round and is aimed at young people, but it deals with the basic questions clearly and objectively. The BBC’s specialist Disinformation Reporter Marianna Spring, is also worth following.

There are also a number of excellent fact checking services. In the UK Fullfact is a good starting point.

Of the US sites Politifact does the job with a sense of humour with rating ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire”.

If you found this article helped you understand what is at stake in Ukraine, please consider making a donation to the Disasters Emergency Committee

Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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