An exclusive reports that many archeologists work in the midst of wars and sometimes they have even started wars.

As empires and superpowers fade, cultural, religious and nationalistic movement depend on archaeology to give them historic validation of history. In northern India, archaeologists have started digging in the ruins of a 16th-century mosque to see if a Hindu temple also existed in the spot. What they find could settle a dispute between Hindus and Muslims that began 500 years ago. Hindus say the mosque was built by Muslims after they destroyed a temple to the god Ram. In 1992, a Hindu mob destroyed the mosque, setting off a religious war in which 3,000 people died. If proof of the temple is found, Hindu militants will feel justified in having destroying the mosque and will want to rebuild the temple, setting off another war.

Archaeologists in the Middle East have had the most experience with war. Where “time seems to be immaterial ? there is no shortage of political interests,” says archeologist Guillermo Alcazar. One example is Masada, the 2,000-year-old fortress on the edge of the Dead Sea, where hundreds of Jewish fighters made their last stand after the fall of Jerusalem in 74 AD. Israelis now use the site to swear in soldiers, vowing never again to suffer the same fate.

When the Palestinians established a state, Alcazar says, “One of the first things they did was to establish a department of antiquities and dig like crazy.” They targeted the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam. This is where Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the remains of the Jewish temple.

Jewish archaeologists say the Islamic trust is trying to erase any evidence that a Jewish temple ever stood on the site by secretly carting away artifacts. The dispute has gotten so hot that Jewish archaeologists have hired private aircraft to take aerial pictures of the site every few weeks.

During the last major archaeological dispute over the Temple Mount in 1996, Israeli archaeologists opened up an exit to a tunnel in the mount. Palestinians claimed it was a plot to undermine the foundation of the mosque, and riots followed.

During the Bosnian war, both sides tried to erase the archeological traces of their enemy. Serbs consider Kosovo the birthplace of their civilization because the area was once the seat of the Serb Orthodox Church before their 1389 defeat by the Ottoman Turks. Albanians trace their ties to another civilization that lived in the Balkans as far back as 1200 BC.

One of the reasons for the 1991 Gulf War is that Saddam Hussein claimed Kuwait was once part of ancient Mesopotamia, which is now modern Iraq. Kuwaitis trace their origins to a nomadic tribe that settled there in the 18th century.

In the U.S. archeologists and Indian tribes are battling over the remains of Kennewick Man, the oldest and most complete skeletal remains ever found in North America. Indians say they have a right to all remains found on Indian land, while scientists say Kennewick Man has European features and is not Indian. This challenges the idea that Native Americans were here first.

One problem is that each civilization tends to build its holy sites on top of the holy sites of the people they conquer. This helps them assert their power, but it also means that one site can be special to several religions or cultures. Even the national cathedral of Mexico is built over an Aztec holy site. “Christians built over pagan temples except there are no pagans left,” says archeologist Oleg Grabar. “Islam is also the civilization in more constant contact with more civilizations.”

Archeologists are still searching for the ultimate find. Frank Joseph and Zecharia Sitchin think they know where to find it.

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