Middle East studies in the News
Bulldozer Archaeology? [incl. rev. of Nadia Abu El Haj, "Facts on the Ground"]
Reproduced with permission of the author.
THE SCIENCE OF ARCHAEOLOGY is concerned with the past, but it exists in the present, and is shaped by the social, cultural and political context within which it is practised. Historically, nationalism has proved a particularly significant influence upon archaeology. ‘It can be argued that there is an almost unavoidable or natural relationship between archaeology and nationalism', write Philip L. Kohl and Clare Fawcett in the introduction to their edited collection Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology (1995); they go on to observe ‘that this relationship is not necessarily corrupt or intrinsically suspect'. Both terms of this observation are very pertinent to consideration of the development of archaeology in Israel, where Zionism, an ideology that can be regarded as broadly nationalist, has historically shaped the development of Israeli archaeology.
Before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, archaeology in Palestine had overwhelmingly been carried out by European and North American individuals and institutions whose priority was the investigation of the archaeological evidence for the events described in the Christian Bible. Numerous excavations and surveys sought to confirm the truth of the Old and New Testament accounts of Holy Land history from the Bronze Age to the Roman period. The Jewish past of Palestine was, of course, a vital element in the ‘Biblical archaeology' project, but was subsumed into an overwhelmingly Christian-determined archaeological approach rather than being investigated for its own sake. For Zionists, the lack of a distinctively Jewish archaeology was an omission that needed to be rectified; an archaeology of Jewish Palestine ‘was promoted by the Zionist movement to heighten national consciousness and strengthen Israeli ties to the land they were settling'. During the period of the British Mandate in Palestine (1920-48) ‘a distinctive nationalist variant of Western nationalist archaeology was already crystallising within the Jewish community of Palestine'.
From the middle of the twentieth century the Biblical archaeology of the European and American Christian tradition was increasingly challenged by the secular, nationalistic Jewish archaeology associated with the newly-established State of Israel:
As archaeologists fastened their practice to the narrative of, first, Biblical archaeology and later, Jewish history, they sought to make manifest in the land around them the evidence required to demonstrate what they saw as the necessary warrant for Jewish claims to the land of Palestine/Israel: earlier and uninterrupted habitation by peoples who might be recognized as forming an Israelite nation.
The ‘official' archaeology practised in Israel after 1948 was significantly political and nationalistic in character, developing during the 1950s and 1960s into ‘a central pillar of the Israeli secular identity'. That Israeli archaeology during this period was secular rather than religious in character reflected the ideological attitude of the State of Israel generally during this period; but in addition, by offering both a link to the ancestral past of the Jewish people and a demonstration of Israel's modern scientific and scholarly credentials, archaeology transcended the religious/secular divide in Israeli society and established a broad appeal across a wide spectrum of constituencies from the religious and traditionalist to the secular and modernist.
Thus, the nationalistic agenda of Zionism strongly influenced Israeli archaeology after 1948, and suffused the significance of archaeology in wider Israeli culture. The context for archaeological investigation was itself shaped by the almost continuous experience of war and conflict during the formative years of Israel, and the programmes of construction and territorial transformation that influenced the Israeli physical environment. Archaeological investigation went hand-in-hand with the reconstruction of urban centres and the extension of settlement, and – perhaps most significantly – the acquisition, as a consequence of war, of additional territory, often in areas deeply resonant with significance for Jewish history and identity. The 1967 war in particular was interpreted as ‘a war of redemption of the ancient land … [which] turned land and stones into sacred beings'. It is this conjunction of war, ideology and territory that makes the bulldozer a controversial presence in the field of Israeli archaeology.
In her recent book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (2003), anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj lays much emphasis on the role of the bulldozer in Israeli archaeology. Indeed, she argues that the bulldozer is the characteristic tool of Israeli archaeology, symbolizing and realizing an archaeological approach driven by the identity politics of what she interprets as the ‘nationalist-colonialist' ideology of Zionism:
Among Palestinian officials … 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 the earlier strata, which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible (Iron Age through early-Roman).
Abu El-Haj records that ‘bulldozers' were used by Israeli archaeologists on a dig at Jezreel upon which she worked herself, causing deep concern among British and American archaeologists who disagreed with this method of excavation – although she explains in a footnote that she did not witness the bulldozer incident herself, but had it reported to her by a number of others who had been present.
The claim that Israel practices ‘bulldozer archaeology' is an explosive one and draws on images of ideologically-driven Israeli destructiveness that are deeply rooted in contemporary Palestinian perceptions. In accusing Israeli archaeologists of ‘commonly' using bulldozers on excavation sites in Israel, Abu El-Haj is articulating what Sandra Arnold Scham has described as ‘a powerful and widespread notion', the presence of which, Scham claims, reflects the fact that ‘in terms of methodology and interpretation, Arab, Islamic, and additionally Byzantine and Crusader, remains have in the past been disregarded if not destroyed' by Israeli archaeology. Scham agrees with Philip Kohl that the physical bulldozing of such remains has actually occurred ‘only in a few exceptional cases', but demonstrates that the perception that such destructive action does frequently occur at Israeli hands is itself highly significant and revealing. Against this background, Palestinian activists and their sympathizers can be said to be very ready, first, to believe that Israeli archaeologists do obliterate non-Jewish remains using bulldozers as a matter of normal practice, and second, to relate that perception to a complex of other deeply-rooted beliefs about Israel's repressive and violent policies towards Palestinian populations and towards the notion of Palestinian nationhood itself.
Nadia Abu El-Haj clearly identifies with this ideological position herself. For her, the alleged ‘bulldozer archaeology' of the Israelis is symbolic of the ideological character of the ‘nationalist-colonialist' Israeli state and the necessarily brutal business of imposing Zionist claims upon the territory of Palestine:
The earth has to be carved up in particular ways in order for the objects of archaeology to become visible, not simply by transforming absence into presence, but, more specifically, by creating particular angles of vision through which landscapes are remade. How one goes about hewing the land tells us something about what kinds of objects archaeologists deem to be significant (to be worthy of being observed). Moreover, it determines which (kinds of) objects come forth from the excavated land. History was made, and a new material culture produced from, this dialectic between the kind of history these digs sought to recover and the practical work of excavating itself.
Thus Abu El-Haj's argument is that this project of ‘remaking' the landscape, spatially and temporally, requires that the archaeological remains uncovered and identified in a particular region be fitted into a pre-determined framework of interpretation, and that material that can not be accommodated in that framework be ‘cleared away'. This, she claims, is where the bulldozer becomes the characteristic tool of Israeli archaeology, cutting through (and destroying) layers of material that has been classified a priori as unimportant in accordance with the ideological requirements of Zionism.
Abu El-Haj's book has been embraced by critics of Israel and has received sympathetic reviews in some academic journals; others, however, have found fault with her knowledge of archaeological methodology, her unwillingness to acknowledge changes in Israeli archaeology since the 1970s, and the extent to which an anti-Israeli bias has influenced her work. She has also been accused of selectivity in condemning Israeli use of bulldozers but ignoring the well-attested mechanized destruction of antiquities and archaeological remains that has occurred at the hands of Islamic authorities on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In terms of the reception of Facts on the Ground overall, it is notable that, of the many critiques of Israeli archaeology that Abu El-Haj offers, it is the accusations of bulldozer archaeology that have proven most controversial and have provoked the most wide-ranging and polemical debate.
The notion of bulldozer archaeology is so shocking largely because the classic image of archaeologists at work is one of painstaking care, precision and slowness: the earth delicately probed with hand-held trowels, soil gently cleaned from each find with brushes, every stage of the excavation carefully recorded with notes, drawings and photography. As an arena of human activity an archaeological dig would seem to be conceptually closer to an operating theatre than to a construction or demolition site. Yet large-scale as well as small-scale operations have their place in archaeology, and the carefully planned archaeological use of mechanized earth moving techniques, including bulldozing, is an established and accepted practice. Standard textbooks and reference works in archaeology describe the practice of applying appropriate techniques of excavation to different recovery levels of a dig: ‘Thus the topsoil might be removed by a mechanical excavator … and the surface of the site then cleaned with a shovel'.
Mechanical earthmoving in archaeology is an accepted means of rapidly removing material which overlies levels identified as of interest to the excavators. As a technique it came into its own in the 1960s when the availability of increasingly adaptable and effective earthmoving machinery coincided with growing interest in the social and economic evidence accessible through archaeological investigation (reflected in the move towards ‘open area' digs in which large areas would be opened simultaneously instead of in stages) and the increasing prominence of ‘rescue archaeology' in which excavation had to be carried out in a limited time. Gavin Lucas, writing in 2001, noted that mechanical excavators ‘were being occasionally used on sites by the 1940s, but chiefly in a rescue context and often just to cut sections or long trenches', and that it was the 1960s which had greatly stimulated their use ‘to the extent that there are few sites dug today which do not employ a mechanical excavator to take off the overburden'.
However, the nature of the various technologies of mechanical earthmoving, and the language used to describe them, become crucial issues here. The bulldozer, a tracked tractor with a large blade held near-perpendicular to the ground surface, is not a particularly suitable machine for use in an archaeological application: it is generally too heavy, cumbersome, imprecise and inflexible (as well as being expensive and complex to hire and deploy). Bulldozer blades have a place in archaeology, removing large quantities of overburden at the very beginnings of a dig, but for the vast majority of archaeological work different machines are used. Particularly useful are variations on the wheeled or tracked bucket excavator, particularly the tractor-based machine equipped with a rear-mounted hydraulic boom, known as the backhoe excavator or (particularly in Britain, after the most successful manufacturer of such equipment) the JCB. In the text quoted above, Lucas writes of mechanical excavators being used ‘to cut sections or long trenches'; bulldozers, with their inflexible heavy blades, are not ideal for either of these applications, but the JCB, with its variety of trenching tools and buckets and its hydraulic boom capable both of great power and great delicacy, is very suitable. Abu El-Haj's account of the use of a ‘bulldozer' in the Jezreel dig ‘to more quickly determine the direction and structure of the Iron Age moat' gives rise to the suspicion that the machine used was not in fact a bulldozer but was an excavator of the JCB type, for this activity clearly involved precise digging and a bulldozer cannot dig, precisely or otherwise. The archaeologist who headed the Jezreel excavation, Professor David Usshiskin, has confirmed, in an internet posting dealing in detail with some of Abu El-Haj's claims, that this was indeed the case:
I believe the use of a JCB to determine the line of the rock-cut Iron Age moat was justified. It was essential to establish the size of the Iron Age enclosure in order to understand properly the site … A JCB with a long arm working delicately under archaeological supervision was the right solution: it can do useful work without damaging ancient remains, and I believe that this was the case here.
In general non-technical discourse the term ‘bulldozer' is frequently applied in a loose way to a wide range of earthmoving vehicles, whether they are tracked or wheeled, are equipped with blade or bucket, or are designed for excavation or for grading; and to place such emphasis on the distinction between the bulldozer and the JCB may seem to belong to the realm of the trainspotter rather than the scholar. The fact is, however, that in this context the distinction between the two types of machine is important, and it is not unreasonable to expect a serious scholar to acquaint herself with that distinction and use the correct term in a responsible way, particularly as she is attaching such weight to the point she is trying to make with her account of Israeli ‘bulldozer archaeology'. Equally, however, it is true that her point is given added emphasis by her use of the word ‘bulldozer', a word which is heavily laden with symbolic significance, particularly in the context of Israel/Palestine. It makes for a much more memorable and effective denunciation of Israeli archaeology to accuse excavators of using bulldozers – conjuring up images of 60-ton steel behemoths with colossal blades grinding Palestine's heritage beneath their tracks – than to report that they used a JCB to dig trenches and remove topsoil, like archaeologists the world over.
Nadia Abu El-Haj's distorted picture of Israeli archaeological practice is not simply a matter of confusion over technical terms, but a conscious strategy of ideologically-motivated misrepresentation. The essential point is that Abu El-Haj's target is not Israeli archaeology at all, but the existence of Israel itself. She describes the main purpose of her book as ‘analyz[ing] the significance of archaeology to the Israeli state and society and the role it played in the formation and enactment of its colonial-national historical imagination and in the substantiation of its territorial claims', and exploring the contribution of archaeology to shaping ‘the contours of the so-called "new Hebrew" nation and citizenry' in Palestine. Israel, for Abu El-Haj, is an invention, an artificial colonial enterprise driven by an ideology, Zionism, within which colonialism and nationalism are intrinsically linked. Facts on the Ground is devoted to her argument that the nationalist archaeological tradition of the Jewish State since 1948 has played a fundamental role in inventing and sustaining the interrelated fictions of ancient and modern Israel. It is as a symbolic epitome of that claim, rather than for itself, that her notion of ‘bulldozer archaeology' is important to her argument; and on those grounds the archaeological bulldozers of her imagination must be dismissed as an ideologically-driven fiction themselves.
[This essay forms part of an ongoing study of the cultural history of the bulldozer, and is very much a work in progress.]
1. Bruce G. Trigger, ‘Alternative archaeologies: nationalist, colonialist, imperialist', Man, new series, vol. 19, no. 3 (1984), p. 356; Neil Asher Silberman, Between Past and Present: Archaeology, Ideology and Nationalism in the Modern Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 1989), p. 10.
2. Philip L. Kohl and Clare Fawcett, ‘Archaeology in the service of the state: theoretical considerations', in Philip L. Kohl and Clare Fawcett (eds.), Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 3.
3. An illuminating and balanced account of the establishment of Israeli archaeology is Raz Kletter, Just Past? The Making of Israeli Archaeology (London: Equinox, 2005).
4. Neil Asher Silberman, Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archaeology and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1700-1917 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982); Neil Asher Silberman, ‘Desolation and restoration: the impact of a Biblical concept on Near Eastern archaeology', Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 54, no. 2 (June 1991), pp. 76-87; Thomas W. Davis, Shifting Sands: the Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Bruce G. Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989; 2nd edn., 2006), pp. 272-3.
5. Trigger, Archaeological Thought, p. 273.
6. Neil Asher Silberman, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem: archaeology, religious commemoration and nationalism in a disputed city, 1801-2001', Nations and Nationalism, vol. 7, no. 4 (October 2001), p. 496.
7. Stefan Helmreich, ‘Spatializing technoscience: the anthropology of science and technology, and the making of national, colonial, and postcolonial space and place', Reviews in Anthropology, vol. 32, no. 1 (January 2003), p. 15.
8. Rachel S. Hallote & Alexander H. Joffe, ‘The politics of Israeli archaeology: between "nationalism" and "science" in the age of the Second Republic', Israel Studies, vol. 7, no. 3 (2002), p. 86.
9. William G. Dever, ‘American Palestinian and Biblical archaeology: end of an era?', in Alice B. Kehoe and Mary Beth Emmerichs (eds.), Assembling the Past: Studies in the Professionalization of Archaeology (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), p. 97.
10. Hallote & Joffe, ‘Politics of Israeli archaeology', pp. 86-8.
11. Idith Zertal, ‘From the People's Hall to the Wailing Wall: a study in memory, fear, and war', Representations, no. 69 (Winter 2000), p. 113; see also Arye Naor, ‘"Behold, Rachel, behold": the Six Day War as a Biblical experience and its impact on Israel's political mentality', Journal of Israeli History, vol. 24, no. 2 (September 2005), pp. 229-50.
12. Nadia Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 148.
13. Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground, p. 306, note 12. Abu El-Haj also discusses this incident in her article ‘Translating truths: nationalism, the practice of archaeology, and the remaking of past and present in contemporary Jerusalem', American Ethnologist, vol. 25, no. 2 (May 1998), pp. 171-2, 183-4 notes 17, 18, 21-23, in which she presents a more nuanced account of the use of ‘bulldozers' in archaeology than she does in the later and more polemical Facts on the Ground.
14. Sandra Arnold Scham, ‘The archaeology of the disenfranchised', Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, vol. 8, no. 2 (June 2001), p. 204.
15. Philip L. Kohl, ‘The material culture of the modern era in the ancient Orient: suggestions for further work', in Daniel Miller, Michael Rowlands and Christopher Tilley (eds.), Domination and Resistance (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 241.
16. Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground, p. 148.
17. See critical reviews by Jacob Lassner, Middle East Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 3 (Summer 2003), pp. 79-82; Aren Maeir, ISIS: Journal of the History of Science in Society, vol. 95, no. 3 (September 2004), pp. 523-4; Alexander H. Joffe, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 64, no. 4 (October 2004), pp. 297-304. More sympathetic assessments can be found in Margarita Díaz-Andrew, Antiquity, vol. 76, no. 294 (December 2002), pp. 1140-42, and Tim Murray, Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 14, no. 2 (August 2003), pp. 265-6. Edward W. Said praises Abu El-Haj's work in ‘Memory, inequality and power: Palestine and the universality of human rights', Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 24 (2004), pp. 15-33.
18. Sandra Scham, ‘A fight over sacred turf', Archaeology, vol. 54, no. 6 (November/December 2001), pp. 62-8; Sandra Scham, ‘High place: symbolism and monumentality on Mount Moriah, Jerusalem', Antiquity, vol. 78, no. 301 (September 2004), pp. 657-9. For accusations of the Islamic authorities at the Temple Mount destroying antiquities with bulldozers, see Kristin M. Romey, ‘Jerusalem's Temple Mount flap', Archaeology, vol. 53, no. 2 (March/April 2000), p. 20; Elizabeth J. Himmelfarb, ‘Supervision at Temple Mount', Archaeology, vol. 53, no. 5 (September/October 2000), p. 19.
19. Graeme Barker (ed.), Companion Encyclopedia of Archaeology (2 vols., London: Routledge, 1999), vol. I, p. 160.
20. Gavin Lucas, Critical Approaches to Fieldwork: Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 52.
21. ‘Archaeologist David Usshiskin responds to El Haj accusations', Solomonia Blog, 5 December 2006: http://www.solomonia.com/blog/archives/009649.shtml.
22. Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground, pp. 2, 4.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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