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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 January, 2004, 11:04 GMT
When archaeology gets bent
Although archaeology is sometimes associated with dry digging and forgotten ruins it also has another, sometimes darker aspect - one that has used evidence from the ground for political ends.

Protesters in Macedonia wave the Vergina Star
The Star was the centre of the original Macedonian flag
It is 10 years since Greece began toughening economic sanctions against neighbouring Macedonia - in objection to, amongst other things, Macedonia's proposed use of the Vergina Star on its flag.

The star is an ancient 16-pointed golden symbol found on tombs and artefacts across the region.

It originated from the vergina tombs on a golden casket from the tomb of Philip, father of Alexander The Great. But this archaeological find had already long been a part of Greek identity - causing a massive diplomatic row.

"The new Macedonian republic, in voting for a new flag - a red background and golden star, or as they termed it, sun, which was a 16-pointed symbol - was immediately interpreted by parties in Greece as a clear statement of territorial ambition," Keith Brown, of the Watson institute for international studies, told BBC World Service's The World Today programme.

"[It was seen as] a symbolic threat to Greek national identity and its relationship with the past."

Past and present

Ancient Macedonia covered parts of modern Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia.

The symbolic weight of the Vergina Star is such that the name vergina is used as name for many restaurants and shops in both Macedonia and Greece.

Already angry at the use of the name Macedonia, which is also one of Greece's northern provinces, Athens insisted the flag be changed.

It eventually was, becoming the current yellow-and-red Sun flag, and the country agreed to go by the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Macedonian archaeologist Bajana Mojsov told The World Today the symbolic weight attached to the Vergina Star was archaeologically absurd - but politically inevitable.

"The star of vergina applies to the 3rd Century BC northern Greece - a very different situation, not related to the 21st Century AD.

"I think it's modern politics, and we're witnessing the use of an archaeological symbol for history that it's really not related to."

Neutral data

Although Macedonian-Greek relations have since improved, the dispute shows how archaeology can play a key part in nation-building - the discipline itself emerged alongside 19th Century nationalism.

"It developed because nation states needed it for prestige and history and authenticity," stated Neal Ascherson, editor of Public Archaeology magazine.

Adolf Hitler
Hitler had special teams of crack archaeologists
"One recurring theme is 'we are going to show you that we have always been here' - or alternatively that 'we have been here before you came'.

"Basically, it was hugely useful to nervous people unsure of their own authenticity wanting to prove it with the spade."

Some archaeologists argue that throughout history data has been unscrupulously misused.

Adolf Hitler was so fond of archaeology that he gave the SS secret service special archaeological units, so that they could dig to prove a Nazi ideological bond of soil and nationhood.

Meanwhile, both Nazi and Soviet archaeologists interpreted the same evidence to prove that Poland was Germanic or Slav.

Similar abuses occurred during the Balkans conflicts following Yugoslavia's break-up - not just in Macedonia, but throughout the region, argued Stasa Babic of Belgrade University.

"We didn't put any effort to fight these kinds of bogus stories," Dr Babic said.

"Data never speaks for itself. We interpret it, and whenever we interpret it we read in our own political stances.

"Archaeology can't be neutral. We have to be aware of it and we have to admit it."

The BBC's Laurence Pollard
"Macedonia needed symbols to appeal to all of its ethnic groupings"

Bid to settle Macedonia name row
01 Jan 02  |  Europe
Timeline: Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
13 Jul 03  |  Country profiles

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