How Nationalists Use Archaeology as Propaganda

Indiana Jones fighting Nazis to rescue precious artifacts for public enjoyment. This is the image that popular culture has manufactured of archaeology. Archaeology is therefore perceived as a benevolent protection of the past, a perception that, while not always untrue, can be problematic. Archaeology, at its best, seeks to deepen and ameliorate the public understanding of past events, creating a more accurate history drawn from as many perspectives as possible. At its worst, however, archaeology can be (and has been) used as a tool to promote extreme nationalism, even to the point of genocide.

In 1933, when the Nazi Party rose to power, funding for archaeological research skyrocketed (Young, 2002), but the Nazis were intentionally misrepresenting the facts of German prehistory. Any and all artifacts of African, Slavic, or South American origin were destroyed or sent away from the eyes of the German people (Young, 2002). The Nazis were altering the past to create an image of a Germany that was descended solely from the Aryan race, with no outside influences whatsoever. They claimed this gave Aryans an inherent right to all the lands they had ever occupied, and superiority over other races (Young, 2002). This manipulation of evidence, coupled with a public lack of understanding of human evolution, led to an apparently convincing narrative of Aryan supremacy (Arnold, 2006). It allowed the white Germans to disassociate themselves from the less worthy others. This was an unfortunately effective tactic, eventually culminating in the internment and death of millions of innocent people.

The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp used by the Nazis to separate and murder those they deemed unworthy.                       Source:

This type of archaeological misrepresentation is still a serious problem in the world today. It is important to remember that disruption of historical knowledge is not always reliant on compliance of the people. The Nazis were able to convince large groups that they deserved supremacy by lying about the past, but today some groups are content simply to destroy it. One modern example of this is the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban (Sabloff, 2016). The Taliban wanted to erase any evidence of ‘false idols’. By destroying a group’s cultural heritage, The Taliban were able to present themselves as the only option that the people ever had, or ever would have. Physical destruction may not be quite as subtle or effective as the obscuring of data occurring in Nazi Germany, but it is still deletion of cultural history in favor of a violent nationalist agenda.

One of the Buddhas before destruction in 2001 Source:

What can be done about such abhorrent destruction of the past? It is difficult to stop these things from occurring, especially at the national or even international level, but the best way to prevent false archaeology is by doing real archaeology. By furthering public knowledge of the past, abusing misinformation becomes more difficult. Furthermore, it is always beneficial to look at archaeological theories with skepticism. Consider how such a narrative might benefit those spreading it. It is not possible to stop people from lying about the past, but it is very possible to recognize, and expose the lies.



Arnold, Bettina, 2006. ‘Arierdämmerung’: race and archaeology in Nazi Germany. World Archaeology. 38, 8-31.

Sabloff, Jeremy A. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Routledge, 2016.

Young, Megan, 2002. The Nazis’ Archaeology. Nebraska Anthropologist. 78.


Further Reading

What Archaeology Can Tell Us About Modern Climate Change

A common misconception about archaeology is that it is relevant only to the past. In reality, archaeological research can have a profound effect on modern life, and even on the future. One example of this is the archaeological study of climate change. Climate change is often referred to as one single apocalyptic event that will end all human life, and it will certainly alter human life, but climate change is natural and cyclical. It is happening at a faster and more alarming rate due to human activity, but climate change in itself is inevitable. In order to survive climate change of the future, it is important to understand how it was dealt with in the past.

An interesting glimpse into the impacts of past climate change is the case study of northern Cuba conducted by Jago Cooper and Matthew Peros. Unfortunately, an exact timeline for past climate change is very difficult to obtain. Michael Calway notes in his article regarding past South American droughts that some methods such as ice or sediment cores, while useful, are unreliable in this case and do not create particularly accurate timelines. Luckily, Peros and Cooper were able to access written records of past climate events. In their research, Cooper and Peros discovered not only a cycle of hurricanes and rising sea levels in Cuban history, but also techniques the ancient Cubans used to deal with these problems. One such technique is evident in their architecture. Most houses in the case study area were away from the coast on low, flat ground. They also incorporated a stilted design to allow water from storm surges to flow under the house rather than batter its walls. Another important aspect of the early Cubans’ adaptations is their methods of gathering food. The diet of these societies consisted primarily of things taken from shallow, intertidal marine environments. During a storm, however, these environments could be drastically altered, so the Cubans diversified their diet to include food collected from deeper marine areas. This allowed them to continue to find food even when sea levels were high.

A modern Cuban stilted house

These methods for survival are directly applicable to the current situation in the world. One recent example is the devastation caused by hurricane Irma of the southern coastal states. Modern societies could learn things from ancient ones, like not building too close to the water in hurricane-prone areas. Another example could be to diversify food sources so that no one is cut off in the event of extreme flooding.

Hurricane Irma’s devestation in Northeast Florida.

Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, hurricanes are not the only problem to be faced. Future humans will also have to deal with higher average temperatures, polluted air/water, and other types of storms. It is unlikely that human intervention will drastically slow climate change, but with any luck, people will be able to look to the past to find ways to survive.


Calaway, Michael J. “Ice-Cores, Sediments and Civilisation Collapse: A Cautionary Tale from Lake Titicaca.” Antiquity, vol. 79, no. 306, 2005, pp. 778-790.

Jago Cooper, Matthew Peros, The archaeology of climate change in the Caribbean, InJournal of Archaeological Science, Volume 37, Issue 6, 2010, Pages 1226-1232, ISSN 0305-4403,

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Image Sources

McCullough, Gary Lloyd. “Hurricane Irma – Ponta Vedra Beach”. Orlando Sentinel, 11.       Sept. 2017.

Further Reading