In an earlier post, Remnant of Giants observed how the current archaeological site of Tel es-Safi (“Gath”) was remembered in The Washington Post as a place of conflict between Israelites and Philistines approximately 3000 years ago, while the newspaper made no mention of the eradication of Palestinians from the site in 1948 by Israeli military forces.
How does such a public memory arise? An important factor is that the Israeli government has heavily sponsored and supported scientific investigations into the “Israelite” history of Palestine, with which the state of course identifies, while discouraging any scientific inquiry into the recent presence there of Palestinian Arabs. This Israeli hegemonic structure, and the terms of engagement it imposes, are the already existing conditions within which archaeologists must work in Israel/Palestine. It follows, therefore, that even the most scientifically rigorous expedition will, within such constraints, support that hegemony. This – to be clear – is not to say that the inherently political nature of archaeology in Israel is the fault of individual archaeologists or individual surveys. Instead, it is fundamentally a result of political power structures that already exist in the region. A properly critical, social-scientific approach to Israeli archaeology should be able to recognise – not ignore – the political situation in which the Israeli state and society acts and has its being.
In this respect, no matter how much rigorously scientific information is furnished at Tel es-Safi, the archaeological excavation at Tel es-Safi also contributes to Israeli claims to the land while it suppresses or silences Palestinian claims. Because it is carried out in a particular political context, it necessarily assists in what Nadia Abu El-Haj has described as the enactment of the Israeli state’s colonial-national historical imagination.
Recently on Jim West’s blog (Zwinglius Redivivus), Aren Maeir, archaeologist at Tel es-Safi, replied in this way to the Remnant of Giants blog post mentioned above:
The so-called political issues that are supposedly raised by the remnants of giants blog are, you’ll excuse me, ludicrous! Because I mentioned one example of interaction between cultures (that of the Philistines and Israelites), which went on for ca. 500 years during the Iron Age, does not mean that I purposely not mentioning the modern Palestinian/Israeli issues. First of all – I’m an archaeologist – I deal with archaeological cultures. Second, the Palestinian/Israeli issue is only related to a very brief point in the history of the site (and nevertheless, we have published articles and chapters on the later periods at the site, including the on the Palestinian village). Thirdly, I also made the horrible mistake of not mentioning the altercations between the Canaanite city states in the Late Bronze Age; the tensions in this region between the Jews and the Pagans in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods; and the battles between the Crusaders and the Muslims in the Middle Ages!!!
C’mon – if one mentions modern day politics you are accused of enmeshing archaeology and politics; if you don’t, your accused of not!!!
Let’s get serious – what we are doing at Tell es-Safi/Gath is archaeology. What others try to do with this is their issue.
Much of this reply quite misses the point of the original criticism. I might first note the strangely overdetermined dismissal of any political implications of the archaeological excavation. Not only are the political issues described as only “so-called”, but apparently I only “supposedly” raised them. Well, I don’t think there’s too much doubt that I had at least raised the political dimensions of the excavation. I mean, why else would Aren Maeir have responded? But more seriously, what is disappointing in this response is a complete failure to even recognise the grounds of the criticism being raised. This is not a criticism of the scientificity of the dig; it is also not a criticism that specialists in Iron Age archaeology have confined themselves to their specialist knowledge. In the original post, I did not criticise Aren Maeir nor the excavation; what I did, rather, was highlight the political implications of the archaeological excavation which already prevail, and which the excavation necessarily enters into.
The criticism is, therefore, of the very structure of Israeli archaeology, which renders such archaeological expeditions as pawns in a larger power play over modern Israeli and Palestinian claims to the land. Recognition of this social-political-material situation, and of the political interests which it serves, simply makes for a more critical, more scientific approach to the archaeological dig, not less so. Critical recognition of social-political-material interests does not negate the scientific value of the excavation of Tel es-Safi; it increases scientific knowledge by adding a social scientific dimension. On the other hand, to pretend that your archaeological work is neutral, that it comes “before” political applications, that political applications are independent of your work, now that represents a lack of critical judgment and poor socio-political analysis.
Examination of the political dimensions of Israeli archaeology increases the overall contribution to critical thought. Any archaeologist who wants to concentrate on archaeology, but who is interested in advancing scientific criticism, should therefore welcome such criticism from others.