Archaeology has often been used in different parts of the world to support nationalist, colonialist, and imperialist claims. There does not seem to be a way to exclude religion and politics from archaeology, which is after all a social science and hence political and partial. This can among others be seen in the Middle East and the Holy Land, where Archaeology has been used to serve modern political goals.

In spite of growing self-reflection in archaeology today (January 2005), archaeologists practice a profession that ought to engage with larger social and political contexts. While one may question whether the concept of global human rights is truly international or one that denies the diversity of human cultures, it is certainly an endeavor in which archaeology is emerging as a legitimizing voice. By excavating the past and living in or alongside communities that are threatened in the present, archaeologists have within their remit both a tool for change and obligations to the people they work with. Archaeologists are participants in a social and political praxis.


Novel Histories: Politics of narration

Most history books in the past were written like a form of fiction where the authors did not apply the rules of present day forensic (evidence based) research, thought in all better Universities today (January 2005).

Instead politics of narration include the author’s relations of production and the construction of a relational past. The conditions in which authors work merit more consideration than historian-archaeologists are willing to admit. Issues of class, religion, nationality, language, connections to publishers, and affiliations with institutions all help to structure a highly unequal field of discourse.

Even academic renderings of the past are normally quite close to popular stories. Following a present fashion in archaeology and inserting “living people” into the past would be equal to succumbing to a historically unrealistic closure and harmony. If the goal of “peopling”  a narrative is to reach out to non-specialist readers, one could insert presentent-day figures who conceive of the past in different ways.

Unfortunately, professional ideologies produce the impression of a level field. However some “voices” are folded into mainstream discourse as a means to domesticate them, as has happened with some strands of archaeology.

Any narrative about the past is diachronically relational since it establishes a link between a past and a specific present. The metaphor of a “distant mirror” is employed by authors and literary critics alike to characterize writings that emphasize similarities between past and present. On the other hand, an explicit rift may be created in order to preserve the past’s alterity. Academic history diverges from these possibilities in that pasts are at best shattered distant mirrors or fragments of alterities.

But the political implications are comparable. Archaeologists opt implicitly for one or the other of these links. Constructions of past world systems are a clear case of mirroring, as is a recent book on women in the ancient Near East (See Zainab Bahrani , Women of Babylon, 2001).

Currently relevant issues serve as the foreground for an interpretation of the past. The present is conceived as inherently “better” because more complex than the past. A remedy would be the construction of non-directional, truly historical alterities. This entails the development of a “hermeneutics of the unfamiliar” as has been proposed by Hans-Robert Jauß.

Historians construct meaningfulness by arbitrarily dissecting past residues into clearly delimited items, documents, and contexts – sources – only to merge the disjointed fragments into a new continuum. However, the new entity has a profoundly different character from the originally encountered resid­ual: it is linked in a linear textual narrative. Yet History needs to be seen as cultural and historical praxis that occurs in specific social relations of production. Like the standard novel, what we know as standard history is a textual product.

Does this mean, that we should abandon the pursuit of narratives about the past altogether? I do not think so. However, there is a need to continually rethink their form. Historical and archaeological narratives are ideological in that they generally claim facticity, at least of sources. And the production of relations among sources in the “rejoining” process of historiography involves fiction.

In contrast a  task must be to analyze the dialectical relation between the construction of datasets and the creation of an interpretive narrative from them. This process is a social praxis that cannot simply be seen as creative ingenuity or academically rigorous method. It is driven by conventions, which in turn are recreated by the act of narrative production.

The present use of linear textual accounts in much of Near Eastern archaeology, with (suppressed) omniscient narrators and an unreflective use of language for example, is in need of change unless one accepts the implications for content that come with this particular narrative form. Postmodern conditions should not have a place for know-it-all historical narrators who skillfully weave autonomous “data” into meaningful wholes.

When reflecting on narrative form, authors often refer to the erroneous belief that comprehensibility of a story is reduced when multiple perspectives are considered. Indeed, our notion of perspective itself is a historical product. “Perspective,” or “looking through,” has its origin in the individualistic gaze that originated in Renaissance art and can be compared to strict points of view in literature.

History and archaeology have remained impervious to the end of perspectivism because its demise weakens the rarely questioned fundamentals of professions concerned with the past. Particularly in hermeneutic approaches, a single-narrator perspective leads by necessity to an unrealistic representation of the past. It conceals conflicts by telling a story from one angle.



Although reasons that reports on archaeology of the Middle East appear in the news are limited solely to the connections that can be made to contemporary politics, it striking that such stories proliferate at times of political crisis. Of course, in the broader scheme of things, reports a archaeology were just one small part of the total coverage of Iraq or Afghanis in the context of mobilization for the Gulf Wars and the invasion of Afghanis These wars would undoubtedly have happened even if no mention had ever made in the press of ancient civilizations and biblical connections of sites in or the destruction of the Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley. Yet, stories about archeology contributed to the overall efforts to construct U.S. public opinion in favor war.

Yet during the Iran-Iraq war  (1980-88), not a single article that concerned itself with possible war- damage to archaeological remains in either country appeared in the Washington Post or New York Times, newspapers that frequently reported on archaeology in the Middle East during the Gulf and Afghan wars.

The notion that Western civilization as well as "Western" religions (Christianity and Judaism) are rooted in the ancient Near East runs deeply in the minds of most educated people in the West. This underlying belief made it easy for reporters to link the archaeology of Iraq to contemporary political issues and identities, whether by claiming the great achievements of the Mesopotamian past as our legacy or connecting the modern government of Iraq to the most aggressive and unappealing aspects of that past. Either way, military intervention in Iraq was thereby "justified" in order to preserve the material remains of "our" heritage and wrest humanity's (read, the West's) legacy from the hands of tyrants who would misuse or jeopardize its preservation.

Journalists seem to have found it more difficult to construct direct ancestral ties between the Afghan past and the contemporary West. This may have been in large part because the prominent, historically attested religions in Afghanistan have been Buddhism and Islam rather than Christianity or Judaism. For the most part journalists highlighted the exoticness and difference of Afghanistan's past and its status as a crossroads of other, more familiar "great civilizations. That past was often cast as part of world heritage, offering a reason for the U.S. to intervene to preserve its material remains. In other instances, its destruction was treated as principally a problem for Afghans, whose history and culture were to be understood as decimated by the barbarity of their own people, the Taliban.

Despite the variety of different rhetorical strategies used in the news articles, they nearly all worked to support the same hegemonic position - demonization of the declared enemy (Saddam, the Taliban) and therefore justification for a U.S.-led war. The appearance of diversity in the stories could lull readers into thinking that they were reading diverse perspectives when in fact the underlying message was the same. One means by which this is accomplished is by pitting "experts" against each other in collections of quotes (or in talk shows), but ensuring that the disagreements among them are actually trivial.

The past can be used to demonstrate continuity and precedent but also, in a more liberatory fashion, to imagine possibilities for change and a different future. Nonetheless, using identity as a basis for a vision of change often carries with it problems of essentialism and the static assumptions that lie at the heart of many concepts of identity. Identity claims are necessarily selective and partial, and from an "objectivist" position they can be critiqued and deconstructed. Rather, practices of identity are part of the basic fabric through which people constitute their senses of self; in that respect, they are no trivial matters to be lightly demolished with the wave of an academic hand.

An alternative is for archaeologists to focus of exposing the interests that are served by the selective uses of the past in contemporary identity building, including in media portrayals. Such an approach would point up the partiality of these depictions, highlighting how particular interests structure specific uses of the past. By exposing interests, one does not attack a collectivity's existential basis but rather lays open the grounds on which a group claims to be distinctive and, in many cases, privileged.

Reports about the archaeology of the Middle East are likely to evoke for most non-specialist readers the daily images of the contemporary Middle East which flood the news media, a place that is regularly portrayed as one of violent and persistent conflict, of virulent hatreds and rampant anti-Americanism.

This dialectic relationship of narrator and story is complicated by the changing point of view of the narrator who propagates on the one hand "life as it recounts itself" as the historical original, declaring that he represents events in accordance with their truthful reality.

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