Appointment of Turkish coordinators for foreign archaeology teams draws criticism by experts

The Culture Ministry’s new practice of appointing a Turkish coordinator for foreign archaeology teams during the excavations has drawn criticism from the experts. Opposition DEM Party MP Akın brought the issue to the agenda of the Parliament.

Photo: AA

Nuray Pehlivan / DUVAR

Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry's new practice of appointing Turkish coordinators for archaeological excavations carried out by foreign scientific delegations has sparked controversy.

Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy announced the practice by saying, “We opened a new and national page in the history of Turkish archaeology after 163 years.”

He also said that excavation and restoration works have been united under the name of “Heritage to the Future Project” to transfer archaeological values to future generations as a heritage. Ersoy said that with this project, they aim to bring archaeological values to light rapidly, to reveal the cultural tourism potential throughout Anatolia, and to provide employment to young people graduating from universities' archaeology and art history departments.

At another time, he found the progress in the areas excavated by foreign teams to be low in terms of square meters and said, “Ephesus has been excavated since the 1860s. So far, 25 percent of it has been excavated. With this excavation program, we will increase this level to 45 percent in the next four years. The situation in Hierapolis is also dire! Only 3.5 percent has been excavated there. The excavation rate there will exceed 20, 25 percent by the end of 2024. Afterward, we will rapidly increase the rate to exceed 45 percent.”

We asked experts how accurate it is to evaluate ancient cities based on “success” or “failure” according to the square meters excavated, whether archaeology is not just about excavation, how the classification and publication processes of the artifacts found should be, and the tourism-oriented perspective that decides who should and should not excavate archaeological sites.

We should also note that another important aspect of the issue is that some of the Turkish coordinators assigned to foreign excavations are compelled to accept this assignment given by the Ministry. Because they are worried that if they do not accept this assignment, their own excavations will be taken away from them. While in principle, no excavation head accepts any interference in their own field, it is a matter of curiosity how they will now intervene in the fields of their foreign colleagues in such a top-down manner on the instructions of the minister.

Professor Mehmet Özdoğan criticized the policy and said, “Bureaucracy cannot interfere with science.”

“An archaeological excavation is not a construction site; you can change the excavator, but you cannot change the scientist doing the work. Because that work has a scientific purpose and planning is done according to that purpose. Moreover, everyone has a different way of doing this science. No matter what nationality the excavator is, once they start the work, you cannot have someone else carry out scientific work in the same place without their knowledge. This would be scientific piracy, scientific theft,” he said. 

Professor Mehmet Özdoğan

“Science competes within itself in an environment where bureaucracy doesn't interfere. This is what has developed Turkish archaeology. The bureaucracy cannot decide how many days a biologist will look at a microscope. Likewise, the bureaucracy cannot decide who will excavate and for how long. Turkish archaeology has traditions that started with Osman Hamdi and strengthened during the Early Republican period; respect for scientists and the universality of scientific work are the foundations of these traditions. Once you break the tradition, the system deteriorates!” he added.

Özdoğan gave an example from a 1965 incident in another country. “In that country, they divided an archaeological site into three parts. They gave one-third to the Japanese team and one-third to the Dutch team. They excavated the other third themselves. This was ridiculed all over the world. This is exactly similar to the current situation. No one has the right to put Turkey in this situation! Someone else will enter the area of an excavation director who has been excavating for so many years and excavate in their own way. Can such a thing happen? This destroys Turkey's reputation and understanding of science. This is perceived as hostility towards foreign excavation heads, but this is far beyond xenophobia. This is to see archaeological excavation not as science but as construction.”

Özdoğan also warned that if the ministry did not step back from this policy, all foreign heads of excavations would leave Turkey.

Archaeologist Nezih Başgelen, Director of the Cultural and Natural Heritage Monitoring Platform, said a new “nationalist, monopolistic and isolationist tendency” is preferred in the field of science, especially in archaeology in Turkey.

“During its foundation, the Republic of Turkey welcomed scientists without discriminating between local or foreign. In doing so, the interests of the state were meticulously observed at the highest level in strategic, political, and intelligence fields. Today, various sanctions are imposed on the scientific work of foreign excavation committees. The problems that will arise in terms of friendship between colleagues and scientific ethics after the appointment of a coordinator excavation head may cause irreparable damage to international relations in the future. Moreover, those conducting scientific excavations usually choose which experts they will work with. The intervention of the bureaucracy of the relevant country is not a preferred situation in today's world,” he said.

Director of the Cultural and Natural Heritage Monitoring Platform Nezih Başgelen

Kenan Yurttagül, former Director of Cultural Heritage and Museums, found the policy “very wrong and unfortunate.”

“The minister's joyful announcement that ‘after 163 years we have recovered the excavations’ shows that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's work has never been understood. No one can deny the contribution of foreign excavations to this country. They share their publications with Turkish archaeology. If the Minister wants to interfere, he should close all excavations! Because if you interfere, they cannot work. Moreover, the purpose of archaeology is not tourism. Scientists publish the results. You cannot raise an ancient city quickly so that it will look beautiful and attract tourists,” he said.

 Former Director of Cultural Heritage and Museums Kenan Yurttagül

“Moreover, tourists are interested in the history of the place, not the columns on top of each other. I think the minister is mistaken here. I really wonder who gives these ideas to the minister. You cannot take archaeology anywhere by comparing it with square meter calculations,” he added.

The head of the Archaeologists Association Bülent Türkmen said one of the unprofessional practices in their field is to do the work quickly. “If they want to do it quickly, they should first protect cultural assets, prevent destruction and illegal excavations, and stop opening protected areas to development and rent-seeking. This planning for the rapid excavation of archaeological sites is being done from a purely commercial point of view, not with the aim of protecting these sites and passing them on to future generations.”

The head of the Archaeologists Association Bülent Türkmen

A foreign head of excavation said they followed the developments with sadness as this practice would create a problem between them and appointed coordinators at the excavation sites. “Due to the bureaucratic difficulties imposed on us in recent years, many foreign teams have withdrawn from Turkey. Now they are sending Turkish coordinators who have no idea about what we have been excavating for years. An excavation site is excavated or restored by a team within the framework of a project that deals with all the problems. How will a coordinator who is already heading an excavation in another area know what stage the work is at in our area and what needs to be done? Archaeology is one of the only branches of science that represents Turkey in the world. Foreign excavation teams that have been excavating in Turkey for perhaps a 100 years have contributed a great deal to this. It is very hurtful for us to ignore the efforts of foreign teams under the name of national archaeology and 12-month excavations.”

A Turkish coordinator appointed to an excavation site said they had to accept the duty because they thought they would get into trouble if they refused. “There is no legal background for this. Because according to Law No. 2863, there is only one head of excavation. And that is the excavation head appointed by the Council of Ministers. So, these appointments are currently being made in violation of the law. We all know who the Turkish academics are who encouraged the Minister to do this. The Minister is doing what they say because he's not familiar with the subject and thinks everything tourism-oriented. Also, none of the coordinators assigned to the excavation sites will excavate as fast as we expect. Every excavation has a documentation method. This is a terrible thing!”

After this reporting by Duvar, opposition Peoples’ Equality and Democracy (DEM) Party deputy İbrahim Akın brought the issue to the agenda of the Parliament.

In a parliamentary motion, Akın said the practice was not compatible with the law.

He asked Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy what they were aiming to achieve “by rendering the Head of Excavation dysfunctional.”

“Were the opinions and evaluations of the scientific community on the subject consulted before proceeding with this practice? If yes, have the reports on this issue been shared with the public? Does the Ministry see any inadequacies in foreign excavations carried out with Presidential permission? Are the achievements made by Turkish archaeology with great devotion in the last century being disregarded by tourism-oriented excavations? What kind of momentum is expected from an appointed coordinator to work with both their own excavation site and team and another excavation site and team? Will these areas be transformed into a 'heritage to the future' project or a 'heritage to the contractor' project?” he further asked.

(English version by Alperen Şen)