Middle East studies in the News
Columbia's El Haj slanders...but what are her standards? [on Nadia Abu El Haj of Barnard College]
by Martin "Sol" Solomon
November 27, 2006
Once again, we return to Columbia University's (Barnard College) Nadia Abu El-Haj (see: Who's Coming Up For Tenure: Nadia Abu el-Haj). This post, like the previous, was prepared with the help of an "anonymous academic" (and stop guessing, I didn't say what college they work at).
The great archaeologist William Dever has stated that "Barnard should deny Ms. Abu El-Haj tenure," he said, "not because she's Palestinian or pro-Palestinian or a leftist, but because her scholarship is faulty, misleading and dangerous."
Her publisher, the University of Chicago Press, immediately came to her defense, posting an excerpt form the book. The excerpt they posted, however, gives little clue to why William Dever has charged Abu El Haj with "demonizing a generation of apolitical Israeli archaeologists."
This excerpt from Abu El Haj's book gives some idea of why the archaeological community is irate:
"The most controversial practice in Israeli archaeology has been the use of bulldozers on archaeological sites. Among Palestinian officials at the Haram al-Sharif and the Awqaf as well as many other archaeologists – Palestinian and European or American (trained) – the use of bulldozers has become the ultimate sign of "bad science" and of nationalist politics guiding research agendas. Critics situate this practice squarely within (a specific understanding of) the politics of a nationalist tradition of archaeological research. In other words, bulldozers are used in order to get down to earlier strata which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible (Iron Age through Early Roman.) During the excavation of the biblical site of Jezreel in which I participated, a bulldozer was used in order to more quickly determine the direction and structure of the Iron Age moat. In doing so, the remains above it were summarily destroyed. A joint dig of the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, the research priorities of the excavation were defined by the Tel Aviv team. The aim was to study the Iron Age."
(the footnote to this paragraph reads: "This bulldozing incident occurred a week after I stopped participating in the excavations and was recounted to me after the fact by several participants, both archaeologists and student volunteers. The decision to use bulldozers precipitated quite an argument between the British and Israeli archaeologists digging the site, I was told. With one exception, the former strenuously objected. The exception was a British archaeologist who was a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, a student of the Israeli archaeologist leading the dig.")
"While this chronological focus (and its nationalist implications) provides a partial explanation for such excavating techniques, in order to more fully understand when and why bulldozers are used on excavation sites in Palestine/Israel, the practice needs to be situated within a broader set of methodological questions. The practical logic that guides archaeologists at work determines how sites will be excavated and which remains will be produced, carefully recorded, and preserved. At both the Jezreel excavations and the Jerusalem excavations, archaeologists moved through dirt rather quickly. Israeli excavators tend to use large shovels, pick axes and large buckets in order to move through the earth. In contrast, for example, the European (mostly British) trained archaeologists at Jezreel explained that they would prefer to excavate with smaller tools and slower digging techniques, including, for example, sifting dirt in search of very small remains: artifactual, animal, seeds, and so forth These smaller finds are seen as essential to the reconstruction of aspects of ancient daily life. In general, however, in Israeli archaeology – and clearly, on those excavations carried out in Jerusalem's Old City – the practical work of excavating favors larger (mostly, well-preserved architectural) remains over smaller remains. It is only after "significant finds" have been located that specific loci are more carefully excavated from smaller remains (often pottery shards) that can illuminate the history (the chronology of identity) of the architectural structures themselves or lend insight into the settlement patterns of specific (of significant) stratigraphic layers." (pp. 148-149)
Readers here [see: Temple Mount Destruction Watch] will marvel at El Haj's invocation of the Waqf as an authority on good archaeological practice in the above: "Among Palestinian officials at the Haram al-Sharif and the Awqaf as well as many other archaeologists – Palestinian and European or American (trained) – the use of bulldozers has become the ultimate sign of "bad science" and of nationalist politics guiding research agendas."
Here is a site that monitors the destruction wrought on the Temple Mount...perpetrated by the self-same people El Haj points to as authorities on archaeological elegance. See photos below.
The archaeologist being charged by El Haj with deliberately destroying Islamic strata for nationalist motives is David Ussishkin, who directed the dig at Jezreel for Tel Aviv University.
If Professor Ussishkin has a response to Abu El Haj, he is welcome to space here to defend his field methods.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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