Terra Incognita: The great archeology debate

A persistent discussion about the politicization of Israeli archeology.

archeology 311 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
archeology 311
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
At a recent International Geography Conference in Tel Aviv, Deborah Cvikel of the University of Haifa’s Recanti Institute of Maritime Studies unveiled her latest work on 19th-century naval battles off Acre.
In the course of her study she had carried out groundbreaking research, alongside Dr. Ya’acov Kahanov, on a shipwreck inside the ancient harbor of Acre. It is postulated that this wreck may be related to the naval bombardments by the Egyptians in 1831 or British in 1840.
The unique research into maritime archeology being pioneered at the University Haifa is part of the larger interest archeologists inevitably express in the Holy Land and its long history. But since the 2007 dustup over the granting of tenure to Nadia Abu el-Haj at Barnard, there has been a persistent debate about the supposed politicization of Israeli archeology. The infamous case of Haj concerned the typical circle: Anti-Israel polemics passed off as scholarship, condemnation by pro- Israel supporters, accusations of freedom of speech being threatened and finally the legitimization of the anti-Israel polemic in the name of protecting free speech.
According to one interpretation, archeology in Israel is not a discipline or a science but rather purely political. The sites chosen to be excavated and illuminated, according to one critic, “have been selectively co-opted by the Israeli government in order to strengthen its claims to the land.” Yael Zerubavel of Rutgers noted in 1995 that “archeology thus becomes a national tool through which Israelis can recover their roots in the ancient past and the ancient homeland.”
Keith Whitelam’s pretentious 1997 The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History argues that Israel was “invented by scholars in the image of a European nation state; one that resembles the State of Israel created in 1948.” Terje Oestigaard of the University of Bergen claims in Political Archeology and Holy Nationalism that Israel’s interest in its history is akin to “the distortions and false claims made by the Nazi archeologists.” Comparing Israel to the Nazis is par for the course of scholarly anti-Israel hate speech. Disparaging Israel’s connection to the land has even spawned an entire school of archeology called the Copenhagen School, populated by such scholars as Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas Thompson.
Another critic is Knox College’s Danielle Steen Fatkin, author of National Building and Archeological Narrative in the West Bank (2002). A recipient of an Albright Institute fellowship (funded partly by the US National Endowment for the Humanities), she carried out research in Israel but her most recent work has been in Jordan. The same scholar who condemns Israel’s “national mythologizing run amok” waxes eloquent about how “developing a coherent national identity is vitally important not just for creating at least a fiction of Palestinian unity, but important also for the presentation of Palestinian needs to the international community.”
Fatkin’s Web site refers to her interest in “Roman religions, especially Judaism.”
Anyone who thinks Judaism is a Roman religion cannot be faulted for finding only Palestinians in the Land of Israel.
ALL THIS pseudo-research about nation-building and its supposed parasitic relationship with the scholarly creation of a “mythical” Jewish past is all caught up in the “post-structuralist, anthropological, Marxist interpretation” of nonsense.
But it is worthwhile to examine the critic’s claims.
Those who want to find evidence for the politicization of archeology theoretically have to look no further than at what is being excavated. Examining a list of recent excavations in Israel, one can view any excavation focused on Iron Age (1300-600 BCE) as being biased toward “Israel” since it is in this period that the Jewish monarchy of David and Solomon is believed to have existed.
The Antiquities Authority and foreign funders are all accused of conspiring to dig right through Islamic era relics to find the evidence for Jewish settlement in older periods. One gets the picture of savage archeologists throwing aside Ottoman stonework, smashing Ummayid buttresses and bashing through Mameluke decorations to get to the mother lode of addictive Hebrew artifacts that may or may not exist underneath.
The evidence is misleading though. One list of 27 excavations from 2003 supposedly shows that “very few” excavations deal with the Islamic/Ottoman periods.
True. However the excavations don’t deal with a search for Jewish relics either, rather nine deal with the Byzantine era (330-630 C.E.) sites and 12 with the Bronze Age, the period of the Canaanites (3500-2300 BCE). An examination of sites being explored in 2004 shows that numerous Roman, Nabatean and even Neolithic (9500 BCE) sites were being examined.
A Foreign Ministry document lists 16 sites accepting volunteers from 2009.
Among them were Ein Gedi, Omrit (site of a possible Herodian temple), Bethsaida (site of a Jesus miracle), Ashkelon (Canaanite, Islamic and Crusader periods), Mount Zion (“we will be digging the early Islamic levels”), Tel Hazor (“the Canaanite period will be explored”), Kfar Hahoresh (9,000-yearold village), Tel Dor (major Canaanite-Phoenician-Hellenistic-Roman port) and Hippos (site of a Roman building). An examination of the topics presented at Israeli tour guide schools finds no overemphasis on the Jewish history of Israel. In a similar vein, the country’s national parks include a disproportionate number of Crusader, rather than Jewish, sites such as Ein Hemed, Castel, Yehiam, Belvoir, Apollonia and Tel Afek.
More could be done to examine sites that relate to the Ottoman and Mameluke periods, especially the very interesting khans and flour mills that exist in varying states of decay. Some of the Arab sites, such as sheikh’s tombs, are of interest as well. But disinterest in the 13th-19th centuries doesn’t add up to bad archeology.
Is it wrong for a country to have some interest in the past that relates to the people currently living in it? The Irish might be able to answer that.
No fans of Israel, the Irish were accused by Janis McEwan in Archaeology and Ideology in Nineteenth Century Ireland: Nationalism or Neutrality? of manipulating archeology to fashion a national past. Many other nationstates have been accused of politicizing archeology by daring to be interested in their own past, such as the French interest in the Gauls and the Danish, Italian and Slovene interest in themselves. Thus the deconstruction of archeology is part and parcel of the wider European attempt to deracinate Europeans from themselves, to eradicate all forms of nationalism and anything connected to it. Jewish history should not be forced to suffer on account of that European trend.

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.