At the ancient site of Charax Spasinou, military activity has left an indelible mark. Should it be viewed as modern damage – or as an important record of historical events?
Modern conflict archaeology, the study of 20th and 21st century conflicts, is a new and slightly uncomfortable discipline in the world of archaeology. It’s problematic in a number of ways. Firstly, very little of it involves what most people would recognise as archaeology – digging up cultural material from the ground for study. Most of the material legacies of modern conflicts remain above ground and embedded in current society, necessitating a more anthropological, interdisciplinary approach. Secondly, the time periods under study are often within living memory, and often remain highly contentious within the affected regions. This means that modern conflict archaeology can be a political minefield – as well as an actual minefield.
I’m currently working in Iraq down in Basra province at the two thousand-year-old city of Charax Spasinou, founded by Alexander the Great in 324 BC. Thirty years ago, however, the site was home to thousands of Iraqi soldiers. The Iran-Iraq war was dragging towards its end, both sides exhausted by the waves of offensives which had made 1987 the war’s bloodiest year. That spring the Siege of Basra had cost the lives of at least 60,000 Iranian and 20,000 Iraqi soldiers.