Before I was an East Asian Studies major on top of Archaeology, I was a Philosophy major. In an intro class I took, the main focus was ethics. We discussed ethics throughout the ages, and I was lucky that my professor had his Ph.D in comparative philosophy so we had the opportunity to discuss both Eastern and Western approaches to ethics.

Looking back at the philosophers we studied (the Greeks, Aquinas, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Hume), I find it ironic that the man whose philosophy I least agree(d) with (Kung Fu Tzu, or Confucius) in the ethical, social, and spiritual contexts, I can agree with most in the context of Archaeology. One of the basic teachings of Confucius is to respect your parents and honor your ancestors. While I may not practice what he preached, I can certainly see what value this outlook has for my field, and everyone’s enrichment.

Case and point: the Buddhas of Bamyan. In 2001, the Taliban, viewing the 80+ foot monolithic Buddhas carved into the cliff faces near the remote town of Bamyan, Afghanistan (along the Silk Road trade route) as remnants of Buddhist idolatry, chose to destroy these potential tourist attractions/revenue creators. Despite offers to buy the statues and the 0% population of Buddhists in Afghanistan, over the course of several weeks, anti-aircraft artillery and anti-tank mines were used to obliterate the UNESCO World Heritage site. These Buddhist statues weren’t so much idolatry (most Buddhists in this region did not worship Buddhas, much like Catholics do not worship a statue of Mary per se) as remnants of the rich Gandharan culture that reigned over the region until the 11th century AD. Gandhara was a wonderfully diverse culture, notable for its mixture of East and West in its artistic styles. Indeed, even in our small collection of Gandharan artifacts at USC, one can see the Buddha dressed in a toga with Caucasian features.

Destroyed Bamyan Buddha
Desroyed Bamyan Buddha

Next semester, REL 465, the Archaeology capstone course, is being offered for once. This course covers archaeological ethics and its place in society. It’s interesting that we need to be taught an ethics course, much like a bio or engineer would.

On a side note, a few interesting developments were made after the destruction of these statues: 50 more caves were revealed behind the Buddhas. There are caves littering the cliffs, where hundreds of monk-hermits lived spiritually rich lives creating paintings, writings, and miniature statues. In these most recently found caves, the oldest known oil paintings have been discovered, possibly predating European oil paintings by 600 years.


One thought on “Ethics

  1. I think an interesting case could be made that archaeologists do anything but honor our ancestors–we dissect their daily lives, dig them up, empty out their graves, place their bones on tables for analysis, all so we can better understand the past. Or so we can publish pretentious papers about the past. If we truly honored our ancestors, maybe we would let them rest in peace.

    Not that you can really compare digging up a grave and preserving its contents to bombing famous monuments… but you know. Archaeology is a destructive science and all that.

    Not that I think digging up graves isn’t potentially interesting… just questionable.

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