Olson, Kyle G.

University of Pennsylvania

Research Title: Archaeology and Dam-Led Development in Mid-Twentieth Century Türkiye and Iran: A Cold War History of Foreign Aid, Field Science, and Modernization

Dr. Olson is an archaeologist who studies the relationship between American foreign relations and the practice of American archaeology abroad. He is currently investigating the roles that archaeologists played in foreign aid and technical assistance programs, with a special focus on dam-led regional development in the mid-twentieth century and how these programs came to shape the relationship between cultural heritage, tourism, and modernization.

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Archaeology and Dam-Led Development in Mid-Twentieth Century Turkey and Iran: A Cold War History of Foreign Aid, Field Science, and Modernization

During my time at ANAMED, together with Dr. Christina Luke of the Department of Archaeology and History of Art at Koç University, we have drafted an article manuscript that examines how archaeology—i.e., the discipline with the theory and practice for the recovery of the past—became involved in the creation of the future. In this paper, tentatively titled “Foreign Experts, Field Archaeologists and Modernization in Cold War Iran and Turkey,” we work to understand how archaeology went from being an afterthought in development and technical assistance projects to a crucial component of modernization planning in the Middle East through two case studies, one each from Turkey and Iran. Tracing the trajectory from archaeology’s early encounters with public works in the 1930s–40s to its evolving relationship with foreign aid during the 1950s–70s, we reveal new facets of the entanglement of the social sciences with the Cold War, expose changing understandings of the value of the past, trace the shifting priorities of development experts, and reveal key episodes in the formulation of today’s heritage management policies in Turkey and Iran.
Our historical narrative begins with the first instance of direct connections between archaeology and development in the United States. This episode is rooted in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) salvage archaeology program dating to the mid-1930s and expanded through the River Basin Survey program of the 1940s. The TVA inaugurated a specific form of integrated large-scale development planning based on multiple-purpose dams—i.e., not only for electricity generation, but also for flood control and irrigation, and improved navigation—as the focus of basin-wide, regional economic strategies.[i] Archaeologists had not initially been involved in the planning of the TVA, however. In response to the news that major river basins would be flooded by these dams, local archaeologists used their Depression-era work-relief experience and connections to begin a program of salvage archaeology in the Tennessee River basin.[ii] These efforts not only resulted in the rescue and documentation of hundreds of archaeological sites but also created a large body of trained professionals and generated considerable institutional and administrative momentum for heritage preservation.[iii] Over the next decade and a half, as a result of concerted lobbying efforts in Washington, the archaeological profession created a program called the River Basin Surveys (RBS) to mitigate the threat of heritage destruction posed by the massive dam-construction campaign embarked upon by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers to spread the TVA model to the rest of the United States.[iv]
After World War II, the American government sought to export TVA-style modernization projects throughout the world based on “the genuine belief that it had successfully triggered development in a backward area and confidence that this success could be replicated.”[v] Indeed, encouraging TVA-style development projects became a central component of American foreign policy in the Middle East, shaping the US Truman Doctrine in 1947 and the 1949 “New Deal for the World” Point IV program.[vi] These aid and technical assistance programs to the Middle East during the Cold War were closely connected to broader foreign policy imperatives, as numerous developing countries became both proving grounds for modernization theory and also the sites of Cold War proxy conflicts as the USA and the USSR competed for influence.[vii] Turkey and Iran were seen by American policymakers as especially key allies in containing both the Soviets and Arab nationalists who might threaten the American hegemonic project and stymie the spread of free enterprise throughout the developing world. Thus, the construction of dams for the purpose of economic uplift and engendering allyship was connected to the US’s strategy for consolidating its geopolitical position in the Middle East.
For this reason, one of our initial lines of investigation was to examine the very earliest dam-related archaeological projects conducted in Turkey and Iran to see how they might be similar or different from the TVA and RBS archaeology programs and how they related to US foreign policy. What we found was that despite the fact that the TVA model was adopted as a key part of regional development and modernization projects in both countries—and in some cases involving technical assistance from TVA personnel—the mandate for developers to provide funding for salvage archaeology was not initially transferred along with the rest of the paradigm. American archaeologists were quite active in the Middle East, however, in many of the same areas targeted by American development experts. What remained to be explained then was how archaeologists and developers related to each other in this new context. Given the precedent that had been set by the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, which had made dam-related heritage-preservation and archaeological salvage an international cause célèbre,[viii] it could not have been the case that the foreign aid and technical assistance experts were ignorant of the threat that their work posed to heritage by dam-building. And moreover, we knew that ultimately, in both Turkey and Iran, a salvage-and-preservation paradigm for heritage management would take hold eventually, so our task became to understand the historical trajectory of how this shift came to pass.
In Turkey, the first dam-related archaeological project was connected to the Keban Dam and much more closely resembled the River Basin Surveys in the US in that it was directed and led by local archaeologists but differed in that it was not funded by the development agencies. Like the TVA-RBS programs in the US, the Keban project was a watershed moment in the history of the professionalization of the discipline in Turkey, resulting in the training of dozens of scholars and methodological revolutions in the field.[ix] Our research about the Keban project and how it impacted the evolving archaeology-development nexus in Turkey is still ongoing. In the case of Iran, we have more clarity. The Dez River Dam project differed considerably from all of the aforementioned dam-related archaeology projects in that it didn’t involve salvage, rescue, or preservation of any kind. This was because the planners of the Dez dam and its associated regional development program directly hired an American archaeologist—Robert McCormick Adams of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago—to consult on the project. In other words, planners attempted to instrumentalize archaeological knowledge for the technical improvement of a modernization campaign. The irony here was that the consultants that hired Adams were in fact themselves ex-TVA executives and ought to have been fully aware of the necessity to fund salvage archaeology in relation to their construction projects. But they had other ideas for how archaeology could be involved in development: to provide a deep historical perspective on the long-term problems of irrigation agriculture in an arid region. While in the end Adams concluded that archaeology had little to offer developers beside some modest bits of historical context, this consultancy, we argue, signaled the advent of an entirely new relationship between archaeology, foreign aid, and technical assistance.
What we have traced in our paper and will continue to investigate is how archaeology was transformed from an annoyance as an extra expense-line on engineers’ ledgers to something potentially useful for development. In fits and starts, developers and modernization experts began to conceptualize archaeology as an integral part of regional and national planning. What we will show through our continuing archival and historiographic research is that by the end of the 1960s, this transformation was complete, with the salvage-and-rescue paradigm all but having given way to one based on conservation and preservation, wherein archaeological sites and monuments were considered as a class of assets to be developed as tourist attractions and where archaeologists were seen as valuable development experts.
[i] Gilbert F. White, “A Perspective of River Basin Development,” Law and Contemporary Problems 22, no. 2 (1957): 157–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/1190252.
[ii] Edwin A. Lyon, A New Deal for Southeastern Archaeology (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996); John O. Brew, “Emergency Archaeology: Salvage in Advance of Technological Progress,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 105, no. 1 (1961): 1–10.
[iii] Frederick Johnson, “The Inter-Agency Archaeological Salvage Program In The United States,” Archaeology 4, no. 1 (1951): 25–40; Fred Wendorf and Raymond H. Thompson, “The Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains: Three Decades of Service to the Archaeological Profession,” American Antiquity 67, no. 2 (2002): 317–30, https://doi.org/10.2307/2694569.
[iv] Jesse D. Jennings, “River Basin Surveys: Origins, Operations, and Results, 1945–1969,” American Antiquity 50, no. 2 (1985): 281–96, https://doi.org/10.2307/280486.
[v] François Molle, “River-basin Planning and Management: The Social Life of a Concept,” Geoforum 40, no. 3 (2009): 488–89, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2009.03.004.
[vi] Christina Luke and Lynn Meskell, “New Deals for the Past: The Cold War, American Archaeology, and UNESCO in Egypt and Syria,” History and Anthropology (2020): 5, https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2020.1830769.
[vii] Begüm Adelet, Hotels and Highways The Construction of Modernization Theory in Cold War Turkey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018): 2, 37, 87–88.
[viii] Lucia Allais, “The Design of the Nubian Desert Monuments, Mobility, and the Space of Global Culture,” in Governing By Design: Architecture, Economy and Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), 179–215; Lynn Meskell, A Future in Ruins
UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
[ix] Laurent Disssard, “Learning by Doing: Archaeological Excavations as ‘Communities of Practice’,” Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 29, no. 1 (2019), http://doi.org/10.5334/bha-601.