Archaeology and Nationalism

Martin Kramer, “Archaeology and Nationalism,” Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, vol. 6 (1990), pp. 493-94. The article is a review of Neil Asher Silberman, Between Past and Present: Archaeology, Ideology, and Nationalism in the Modern Middle East, published by Henry Holt.

Archaeology and nationalism are bound together in a reluctant relationship of mutual need. The reluctance lies in the antithetical claims to truth which they make. Archaeology seeks the status of a science—dispassionate, skeptical, myth-shattering. Nationalism inevitably presses its case beyond the bounds of science, grasping for unknowable truths; it is feverish, romantic, myth-generating. Yet diggers and dreamers cannot escape one another. Archaeology needs the resources allocated by nations; nations need “objective” findings which confirm their cherished myths about the past. As in every marriage of scholarship and politics, the price of coexistence is compromise—large or small, open or secret, witting or unwitting.

Neil Silberman’s earlier book, Digging for God and Country, dealt with the place of archaeology in Western imperial rivalry. It was the story of how European gentlemen and scholars crossed Ottoman Palestine in search of archaeological evidence for biblical truth—and a foothold for their own countries in the Holy Land. Between Past and Present is a sequel to that work. Nationalism is still the distorting and driving force of archaeology. But now the players are the independent states of the Middle East, which are less interested in “scientifically” confirming God’s claim to man’s belief than in proving their own claims to land and rule.

Silberman’s book is a kind of archaeological travelogue—a rough jeep ride through the Mediterranean countryside and the scholarly literature. Of the thirteen chapters, five are devoted to Israel; three to Egypt; two to Cyprus; one each to Turkey and Yemen; and a single chapter is split between Yugoslavia and Greece. The book is pitched to the general reader, and the description of sites and the table talk of archaeologists do make for entertaining reading. The author is a good traveler, with a keen sense for the telling anecdote. Still, Between Past and Present is no substitute either for the mass of material on the sites themselves, or for the growing corpus of scholarly literature on the political uses of the archaeological past. In this respect, Silberman does not pretend: the book ends with a useful chapter-by-chapter bibliographic guide to serious reading. But while Silberman is not a professional archaeologist or historian, he knows how to get to the bottom of the scholarly literature. He especially has a knack for making the scholarly controversy (and the occasional scholarly scandal) come alive.

Yet while the drama of academic debate is vividly evoked, the same cannot be said for the intricate interaction of archaeology and nationalism. Readers of this Yearbook will be drawn first to the chapters on archaeological sites identified with the Greek legacy of the eastern Mediterranean. The chapter on Macedonia, which tells of visits to the excavations at Stobi and Vergina, comes closest to fulfilling the author’s promise: here the significance of archaeological findings for nationalist politics is made explicit. But the chapter on Hissarlik is simply an engaging retelling of the Heinrich Schliemann controversy, in which, as the author admits, “there wasn’t much at stake now.” The chapters on the excavations at Paphos and Kouklia in Cyprus are engaging synopses of academic debates. But they establish no particular connection between the reigning scholarly controversies and the painful clash of nationalisms on the island. While the author knows perfectly the history of scholarship surrounding these sites, he knows far less about their contemporary political meaning and potential.

Silberman has a much better grasp of the political context of Israeli archaeology. In Israel, archaeological finds are regarded as evidence of a past (interrupted) Jewish presence in a contested country. One chapter artfully sketches the significance of Masada as political metaphor and place of modern Zionist pilgrimage. Nowhere did archaeology and nationalism so completely merge to weave a myth, although the archaeological (and literary) evidence also raises serious doubts as to whether the famous collective suicide reported by Josephus ever took place. Two other chapters discuss the complex political economy of antiquities preservation and theft in Israel, and another touches upon the debate—philosophical as well as scholarly—surrounding human finds and evolutionary theory. In all these chapters, the author combines archaeological knowledge with a feel for politics. Unfortunately, the author’s final Israeli chapter, lamenting the underdevelopment of archaeological inquiry for the Ottoman period, widely misses its mark. Silberman suggests that this neglect is somehow ideologically motivated, and related to the view of the Ottoman period as a “dark age.” In fact, in Israel, where Ottoman studies are highly developed, the field is dominated by historians who plumb the rich and varied archives of the period. One can hardly accuse archaeologists of ideological bias if they seek their fame in eras that speak more through artifacts than documents.

The chapters on Egypt neatly complement the chapters on Israel. The ambivalence of contemporary Egypt towards its pre-Islamic past is evoked; so, too, are the difficulties which have attended what one historian has called the “decolonization” of Egyptology—the entry by Egyptians into a field first delineated and pioneered by Europeans. Indeed, the Egyptian chapters and the chapter on Yemen are so promising that one can only regret that Silberman did not journey more widely in the Arab world. The admixture of ancient archaeology and modern nationalism is fairly recent in the Arab world, where pride long tended to focus exclusively upon the achievements of Arab civilization. Now, however, official ideologies of state gingerly reach backward in time, embracing all the makers of earlier civilizations and propagating the notion of unending civilizational continuum. Thus, Saddam Husayn, sole ruler of Iraq, casts himself as modern perpetuator of ancient Mesopotamian empire and kingship-the heir to Nebuchadnezzar. The state has actively taken to reconstructing the great archaeological rains of the forgotten past, usually with garish results.

Yet during Iraq’s confrontations with Iran and the United States, its leader preferred to invoke the myths of Islamic and Arab history myths which spring forth not from excavated sites, but from memory. Nothing guarantees that the archaeological past will capture the collective imagination of nations. Certainly it failed to do so in Iran, where Mohammed Reza Shah built a cult of continuous Persian kingship, “affirmed” through archaeological finds and celebrated at the party of the century in Persepolis in 1971. Iran’s revolution was partly a rising against the imposition of this archaeologically recovered history, in favor of the remembered, familiar, textual history of Islam. Throughout the Middle East, the vividly remembered past, especially of Islam, is that which now stirs people to action and sacrifice. Silberman’s final claim that archaeologists are forging a new past, a “modern Creation myth” for the region’s peoples, is a kind of hubris. The peoples of the Middle East are now turning away from the discoveries of the Western-bred sciences, and back to their sacred texts. And so the museum becomes not nationalism’s sacred reliquary, but its forgotten and neglected warehouse.

© Martin Kramer