"We mourn the death of Khaled al-Asa'ad, the retired director of antiquities at Palmyra, who was killed on 18 August 2015.
His brutal murder highlights a new dimension of violent politicization of archaeology in the conflicts currently raging in many parts of Western Asia. The killing of a person because of his engagement with archaeological remains and knowledge must compel us as archaeologists to reflect on the way in which our profession is practiced and perceived by publics at large. A bridge has been crossed – from the destruction of material remains of the past to the murder of a person because of his archaeological work.
Already before this particular tragic event, workers and guards who were employed by foreign excavations - often for significant portions of their lives – suffered from repression and violence by IS and perhaps other Islamist groups that was directed against themselves, their families and their homes because of their relationship with foreign teams and loyalty towards archaeological remains.
As foreigners whose projects have been hosted and made welcome by local communities, ranging from archaeological colleagues to the workers employed by us in the field and families who hosted us in their homes, we have the obligation to reflect critically on whether and how our actions – or non-actions – may endanger them. It is not enough to condemn the murder of Khaled al-Asa'ad. The current situation in Western Asia emerges out of a history of colonial brutality and carving up of territories without consulting the wishes of those living there. It is common knowledge that many archaeologists have been complicit in this colonial history. In more recent times our work has often been conducted under the umbrella of authoritarian regimes, contributing to histories that support them.
The time is long overdue for us - especially those of us who work in foreign countries - to address the ways in which our research and our profession contribute, even if unintentionally, to the perpetuation of injustice toward others. Have we paid attention to the interests of local communities where we conduct our research? How do we handle ideological prescriptions from authorities: opportunistically "for the sake of knowledge production" or critically in terms of the effects, direct or indirect, on the local populations?
We need to develop working ethics for an archaeology that takes local communities seriously. One major element is the necessity to engage on an equal level with the local communities where we intend to carry out our work prior to the start of field research. We must also rethink the boundaries between science and civil society as well as reassess a dangerous parallel between religion and academic knowledge in terms of their respective claims to a privileged access to truth. Such ethics must accompany us during times of fieldwork but also once our immediate working relations have ended or been interrupted - in the extreme case by war as in Western Asia at the moment."