Book Review: Archaeology Under Fire. Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East


Pedro Paulo Funari (Campinas State University, Brazil).

Lynn Meskell has edited a fine volume on a most sensitive subject: the political foundations of academic disciplines. Meskell acknowledges in the introduction that “perhaps academic disciplines, like archaeology, still remain the stepchildren of imperialism” (p.3). For all those practising archaeology in the periphery of the Western World, this is crystal clear, and the book is a very adequate introduction to some of the issues relating to the invention of some archaeologies, Egyptology, Assyriology, biblical archaeology, to name some of them. The familiar postmodern project of deconstructing master narratives is the main thrust of the volume, even if not the only one, as the editor tried to enact what she calls real pluralism, with conflicting chapters.

Some chapters are concerned with the deconstruction of the academic discourse and with a critique of the mainstream, imperial approach to the study of this area of the world. Bernard Knapp and Sophia Antoniadou (Chapter 1) deal with Cyprus from such a view point. They consider that archaeology can only develop its social and political stance within a theoretical milieu which encourages diverse stands. The Cyprus situation and the ongoing destruction of its cultural property by the Turkish authorities is interpreted as a political way of destroying the visible evidence of one culture’s presence in another culture’s land. The whole enterprise of heritage in the island is very much an unacknowledged political process in which certain places (for example, classical Greek temples) are incorporated into the prescribed, nationalist frame, whilst other (for example, Moslem cemeteries) are denied or ignored just because they are seen as a threat to nationalist images of the past.

Kostas Kotsakis (Chapter 2) deconstructs the images of Greek Macedonia, turning back to the origins of archaeology in the early nineteenth century and its use of the philological model. The formation mechanisms of a homogenising Greek national identity, mainly education, is considered a very effective tool in the construction of the normative discourse of nationalism, directly linked to the appropriation of some archaeological remains. The perception of any culture, and Greek culture in this case, as a discrete, bounded and homogeneous unit which retains its unalienable character so that it can be recognised in time and space, is a culture historical approach which has been widely criticised.

K.S. Brown deals with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Chapter 3) taking an original ethnographic approach, engaging directly with local communities, in a actual public archaeology. In contrast to Greek Macedonian nationalism which had the ancient past remains as a primary source of symbolic capital, Yugoslav nationalism was grounded in its own novelty and in its own volition.

Douglass W. Bailey’s analysis of Bulgarian archaeology (Chapter 4) emphasises its deeply descriptive and culture historical approach. As in culture history archaeology elsewhere, explanation is pre-determined, as archaeological research entails little more than recovering more and more data which can be assigned to pre-determined chronological and social stages (which reminds me so much of the infamous “traditions” in Brazilian archaeology).

Albert Farid Henry Naccache (Chapter 7) produces a beautiful analysis of what he calls a memorycide. The author shows how two homogeneous and opposing peoples were invented, the Phoenicians (later considered as Maronite Christians) and the Arabs (later considered as the Muslims), whose archaeological remains were to be appropriated by the supposedly irreconcilable modern communities. Naccache then indicts post-academic, so-called pragmatic, contract archaeology and its acceptance of the destruction of downtown Beirut for the sake of private development of the city (“The archaeologists versus Beirut’s archaeological site” is how he titles one his items).

Zainab Bahrani (Chapter 8) writes a most acute study of the imperialist invention of Assyriology. From its inception in the nineteenth century, Middle Eastern history, Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian cultures have absolutely no connection to the culture of Iraq after the seventh century AD under the Muslim. The Mesopotamian past is the place of world culture’s first infantile steps, like the invention of writing, and civilisation in general. These firsts of culture are then passed as a torch of civilisation to the Greeks and Romans and then to Modern Imperial powers. The structure of this colonialist discipline continues virtually unchanged today, and remains all but unquestioned.

Fekri A. Hassan (Chapter 11) shows how Pharaonic Egyptian archaeological materiality has contributed to shape modern national identity in Egypt. Hassan concludes pledging the Egyptian government to sponsor projects that encourage the inspiration in the rich and varied past of Egypt, as postmodernism has a penchant for cultural pastiche, offering a grammar for integrating Egypt’s elements in striking forms.

The other chapters adopt a variety of approaches. Mehmet Özdogan (Chapter 5) considers that all Turkish states were highly pluralistic and that modern Turkey treats equally sites of Hellenistic, Byzantine or Turkish periods, what “would be unthinkable in Greece” (p.117). The author also stresses the importance of women in archaeology and criticises “cultural cleansing” of Ottoman heritage in other countries. Hodder (Chapter 6) deals with Catalhöyük and the challenges for the archaeologist funded by a large capitalist credit card company interested in relating obsidian and credit cards. The support by local authorities from Islamic fundamentalist and nationalist parties compounds the picture.

Neil Asher Silberman (Chapter 9) describes “an ecumenical coalition of American Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish scholars in a shared project of largely non-denominational biblical archaeology”. Silberman supports the diversity of approaches encouraged by the American Schools of Oriental Research but is not particularly concerned with the locals. D. T. Potts (Chapter 10) describes the archaeology by foreigners in the Gulf Arab states and finishes the chapter by stating his hope that “research in the area in the years ahead remains something which will not come to be determined by the colour of one’s passport”. It is interesting though to note that this is a traditional concern of scholars from former imperial powers and today’s economic powers, eager to have free access to peripheral countries, whilst the economic frailties of third world countries preclude their access to rich countries research areas.

Ann Macy Roth (Chapter 12) closes the book with a critical appraisal of mystical and Afrocentric claims to ancient Egypt, pledging for finding out “what ancient Egyptians really believed” (emphasis added). In a way, Roth and her defence of objectivity in science sums up the epistemological stand of several authors who see the Orient as a proper field of study for Western archaeologists, unconcerned by the interests of locals, or of different audiences even in the Western world. Several other authors, however, do stress the subjective character of the discipline and the invention of such concepts as Near East and Orient. Some authors challenge nationalism as narrow minded and opposed to diversity, whilst others defend one’s own nationalism as pluralist (in opposition to other, supposedly non-pluralist ones). Pluralism for some is the inclusion of different social strata or ethnic groups in the concerns of archaeologists, whilst others see pluralism in the mix of Western liberalism with international capital and local fundamentalists. These apparent paralogical and contradictory viewpoints do however reveal the contradictions within archaeology itself. Archaeology is a political discourse about the past aiming at present day interests. In the case of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, there is a clear divide between those who are willing to challenge the use of the past for the benefit of the few and who are concerned with the interests of the many (locals, ethnic groups, women, exploited, natives) and those who are looking for apolitical objectivity. Even if contradictory, the chapters offer a comprehensive picture of the standpoints regarding some of the most distinguished fields in archaeology (Egyptology, Assyriology, biblical archaeology) and is thus a most recommended volume.