Thursday, August 16, 2007

Archaelogy, Nationalism, and "Origins"

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, current students and alumni from Barnard College as well as Columbia are drafting an online petition to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj, assistant professor of anthropology at Barnard. They claim that her research, particularly her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, distorts the evidence and is skewed against Israel. According to the Chronicle, "The petition, which has drawn just over 1,000 signatures, accuses Ms. Abu El-Haj of ignoring or mischaracterizing large parts of the archaeological record, of not being able to speak Hebrew, and of treating Israeli archaeologists unfairly in her work." If true, I think not being able to speak Hebrew would be particularly damning if that is the primary language of the work she is examining.

I have not read her book, but I have heard quite a bit about it, always in a very charged context. In any case, I refrain from making direct evaluations about something I have not read. But I would like to make some comments about archaeology and nationalism in general and perhaps a few comments on archaeology in Israel. If you look at the history of modern archaeology, it always seems to be intertwined with the rise of modern nationalism. The Greek Archaeological Association was created with the birth of the modern nation-state of Greece to recover essential "greekness." In fact, if you look at the earliest digs from this group, the most famous being that of the Acropolis, you might notice that they tore away everything until they got to 5th century BCE Periclean Athens (so, they removed everything from the Byzantine and Ottomon periods). By today's archaeological standards, however, the Athenian Acropolis stands as a prime example of bad archaeology. And they are now in the awkward position of trying to reconstruct some of the structures from later periods. This is even true, or perhaps especially true, of more imperialistic nation-states, especially those groups that conduct digs in other countries in order to provide a narrative of their own national origins OR, if not origins, their own national imperial power. Napoleonic archaeological exploits, especially in Egypt, are probably the most famous in this regard. And who can forget the Germans actually removing the absolutely gargantuan Pergamon Altar to Berlin? The British relationship with Greece is particularly famous, especially the fiasco with "Elgin's marbles." So, if Israeli archaeology has been used or been implemented to reconstruct an origins myth, they would be doing exactly what most archaeologists of many countries have done in the past couple of centuries. This is not to say that this is good archaeology (it is not!), but just to say that bad archaeology has been quite common and been implemented if not invented for nationalistic and imperialistic (it is often difficult to distinguish between the two) endeavors.

But current archaeologists do recognize the problematic nature of their field, especially its past, and they are doing something about it. Greek archaeology is much more sophisticated than it used to be, and later layers of rubble are being taken seriously (those of late Roman, Byzantine, and Ottomon periods). And, if you know anything about current Israeli archaeology, you know that Israeli archaeologists do not agree on the interpretation of anything! Most of them are very skeptical about the biblical sources and are more likely to deny that their site supports any textual evidence, or would be quick to point out how the material evidence gives a completely different picture than anything that can be reconstructed critically or uncritically based upon the surviving texts. This is not to deny that there are many still out there who are seeking to affirm biblical evidence, often squeezing the archaeology into the texts, but this is just to note the variety of views of Israeli archaeologists and that the field has significantly changed over the years with much more sophisticated methods and a great deal more of healthy skepticism.

In the end, this is not the first time Columbia University or its affiliates has been at the center of Palestinian-Israeli debates, as most of my readers know or perhaps even know better than I do (see some of the recent posts on Kishkushim). And I have a strong feeling that we will be hearing a lot more about this in the coming months.


Anonymous said...

While I don't disagree with anything you say, it it not particularly pertinent to the Abu El Haj book, which I have read.

True, she breifly treds the well worn path of the interaction between archaeology and nationalism. But that is not her theme. Her theme is not that Israel archaeologists interpret artifacts in a patriotic light, but that they have actually invented an ancient history for the Jews out of whole cloth.

she states that the ancient Israelite kingdoms were a "pure political fabrication," and that Herodian Jerusalem was "not Jewish." She does this not by encountering the artifacts and reinterpreting them, but by ignoring wholesale every ancient inscription referring to Israel (from Egypt, Babylonia, Moab and elsewhere) and by failing to mention the existence of many hundreds of written documents in PaleoHebrew.

Facts on the Ground is mere histroy denial, or Temple Denial as it is being called in a parallel with Holocaust Denial.

She is free not to admire the ancient Israelites and Jews, and certainly she is free to reinterpret the evidence, but she cannot simply deny that evidence exists and expect scholarly respect.

Jared Calaway said...

Thank you for your comments, anonymous. Like I noted in my original post, I have not read the book, and so could not engage its substance (or, as some of the rumblings and your comment have suggested, lack thereof). I have heard rumblings about it for about a year now. I was just using the issue to launch a more interesting (even if well worn) and more fruitful discussion.

Dismissal of inconvenient data is probably the most annoying and most irresponsible thing a scholar of any discipline can do. If this is all true, then her denial of tenure should be on the grounds of shoddy scholarship as any scholar who produces shoddy work should not receive tenure, whatever their politics or polemics (since, ultimately, we all engage in some form of covert or overt polemics). said...

Qumran has been a particularly sensitive issue for Jewish archaeologists (and one physical anthropologist in particular that I know of) - were the residents Essenes or not? Masada is another place of some nationalistic sensitivity for Jewish archaeologists (and one sociologist in particular that I know of)- did the Jewish defenders commit a form of suicide there, or not?

And you cannot ignore the influence of US archaeologists who like to put their oar in with their own biases.