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‘Come dive with us:’ The politics of archeology

The Russian missile cruiser Moskva in better times.
Russian Ministry of Defence,
On April 22, 2022, locked in an epic struggle for its very existence, the government in Kyiv took the seemingly incongruous step of declaring the recently sunken Russian warship Moskva a Ukrainian underwater cultural object.

Moskva had been hit nine days earlier by two Neptune anti-ship missiles fired from somewhere south of Odessa.

The sinking was particularly satisfying to Ukrainians, not only because the 39-year-old missile cruiser was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet or that it was in the vanguard of Russia’s invasion of their country, but because it was Moskva that had ordered Ukrainian troops garrisoned on Snake Island to surrender, only to be told: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!”

Russian forces subsequently captured and occupied the island for 126 days. The invaders abandoned the site on June 30.

Smoke billows from the Russian cruiser Moskva after it was hit by a pair of anti-ship missiles in April 2022. Ukraine has declared the sunken vessel a Ukrainian underwater cultural object.
OSINT Technical via Twitter
Coming so soon after the high-profile sinking, the cultural declaration by the country’s savvy leadership boosted Ukrainian morale and further humiliated Russia, whose military campaign was already falling well short of Moscow’s expectations.

The legitimacy of such a designation, however, is suspect, at best.

International law, including Articles 95-96 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and Article 2(8) of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, grants sunken foreign vessels immunity, prohibiting third countries from declaring them national cultural heritage artifacts.

Furthermore, Article 1(1) of the UNESCO Convention stipulates that a sunken vessel must be submerged for 100 years before it can even be considered underwater cultural heritage.

But the truth and legalities of the matter appear moot, at least for now. Ukraine’s short-term objectives were met, and what may ultimately come of it is an issue for another time. War in the disputed territories of the east rages on and Russian missiles rain down on Ukraine’s rush-hour commuters.


While Russia built Arctic bases and planted flags at the North Pole, Canada invested millions in the search for Franklin’s ships and recovering artifacts as part of its Arctic sovereignty strategy.


It is not the first time the warring sides have resorted to archeological tactics in attempts to boost their fortunes or legitimize claims in Crimea and the Black Sea.

As international law expert Eden Sarid wrote for the Just Security website, Russia and Ukraine have long been engaged in a bitter battle over “ceramic jugs and sunken treasures.”

“For years, both countries have been using underwater cultural heritage objects, such as sunken ships and submerged ports, to shape historical narratives, claim sovereignty in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and take rhetorical jabs at one another.”

In 2011, three years before he annexed Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally retrieved two ceramic jars from the submerged harbour at Phanagoria in the Taman Gulf, a few kilometres from what is now Russian-occupied territory.

Putin’s political allies reportedly invested US$3.5 billion in archeological research in Phanagoria.

“Hardly the archaeological enthusiasts, they had an agenda,” wrote Sarid. “Indeed, three years later, in justifying the annexation of Crimea, Putin highlighted Russia’s historical ties to the peninsula by referencing archaeological finds that, he claimed, demonstrated that Crimea is ‘the spiritual source’ of the Russian nation.”

The practice is nowhere near limited to the conflict in Ukraine.

Sarid notes what he calls “a growing trend” of countries using underwater cultural heritage as a strategic tool to claim and assert sovereignty in disputed waters, including in the Arctic and the South China Sea.

And Canada is not above the fray. In 2014, Ottawa declared it had found the lost ships from Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition. While Russia built Arctic bases and planted flags at the North Pole, Canada invested millions in the search for Franklin’s ships and recovering artifacts as part of its Arctic sovereignty strategy.

“Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty,” declared then prime minister Stephen Harper.

Added Tony Clement, Treasury Board president at the time: “This is part of our history, part of our heritage as a nation and, quite frankly, part of our Arctic sovereignty as well. I don’t think we’re going to find a Russian flag on the Erebus, so I think it underscores our point.”

The discovery of Franklin’s ships was hailed as a boon to Canadian claims in the Arctic.
Parks Canada
With melting sea ice opening new transportation routes and resource opportunities in the Arctic, Russia too has stepped up its underwater and land-based archeological research in the polar region. It’s even hailed “a historical monument to the Soviet Union’s conquest of the Arctic.”

In the strategic and resource-rich South China Sea, China has opened several underwater shipwreck museums, commissioned a state-of-the-art underwater archeological research vessel, and approved a “National Underwater Cultural Heritage South China Sea Base.”

The head of the Chinese government’s Center of Underwater Cultural Heritage explained these actions aim to provide “historical evidence that can help prove China is the sovereign owner of the South China Sea.”


Archeology as a tool of the state is not a new concept. Indeed, in her 2017 Article “Archeology and Nationalism,” University of London archeologist Ulrike Sommer notes that archeology relies on state funds for excavations, teaching and research institutions. “In return, it can provide tangible remains from the past,” she wrote.

“One of the ways to naturalise a nation state is by comparing it to a human body which has an origin (birth), a family and ancestors, a character and some kind of home. By implication, a nation is assumed to have the same characteristics: a point of origin, ancestors, a national character and history, and a territory.”

Sommer said that in the 19th century, the assertion that a specific ethnic group had existed since time immemorial was frequently used to bolster claims to political independence or the “unification” of different territories.

“A long history seemed to demonstrate the coherence and stability of a group and could also be taken to presage a long and glorious future. I would argue that many statements about the national past are in reality political statements about the present and the future.”

In 1930s and ’40s Germany, Nazi leaders from Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler on down encouraged archeologists and other scholars to investigate Germany’s archeological past in order to strengthen nationalism.

The country’s First World War loss and the punitive terms applied to its surrender, resulting in severe economic hardship, inspired a kind of cultish search for a strong, nationalistic, Aryan-centric prehistoric Germany.

“Pseudoarchaeology”—rejecting the discipline’s established data-gathering and analytical methods—was endemic to the Nazis’ extensive propaganda campaigns, which falsely depicted Germany as the root of civilization and Aryans as the “master race.”

The practice—also known as alternative, or fringe, archaeology, amongst other names—uses artifacts, sites or materials to construct scientifically unsubstantiated theories to boost claims. Evidence is exaggerated, conclusions are dramatized or romanticized, and fallacious and fabricated evidence are routinely used to support false narratives.

“Pseudoarchaeology actively promotes myths that are routinely used in the service of white supremacy, racialized nationalism, colonialism, and the dispossession and oppression of indigenous peoples,” archeologist John W. Hoopes wrote in the November 2019 edition of the Society for American Archeology’s Archeological Record.


Perhaps nowhere is archeology more politicized than in the Middle East.

Israel has long relied on digs and discoveries of ancient artifacts to bolster and expand its claims in the Holy Land. There are literally hundreds of simultaneous projects happening.

In its September 2022 biennial report, Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO working to defend cultural heritage rights and to protect ancient sites, said Israeli settlers and government bodies have seized land or assumed control “under the pretext of archeological research or the development of historic sites for the public benefit.”

Emek Shaveh’s international outreach co-ordinator, Talya Ezrahi, said recently that some Israeli sites “are intended to exclude Palestinian stories and the accounts of other peoples and faiths that have lived in the land.”

“We object to the fact that the ruins of the past have become a political tool in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and work to challenge those who use archaeological sites to dispossess disenfranchised communities,” the group says on its website.

Emek Shaveh’s membership includes archeologists and other heritage experts who claim to be guided by professional and ethical principles.

“We believe that heritage sites can be used to promote understanding between members of different nations, cultures and groups, and should not be used as a means to claim ownership or historical rights over a given site,” said the website.

“Archaeology in general, and in Jerusalem in particular, reveals the rich and diverse fabric of human history, which has universal appeal. Archaeology tells an independent story about human existence, culture and achievements. It is not selective nor is it subservient to sacred texts.”

In his piece on weaponizing underwater archeology, Eden Sarid writes that Ukraine’s disregard for international law and its mocking invitation to Putin to come dive on the Moskva wreck only serve to erode long-established principles of international law and weaken “the already-fragile protection afforded to underwater cultural heritage.”

In the long run, he says, Kyiv is “playing into the hands of Russia and other states seeking to undermine established international rules of maritime sovereignty.”


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