Indigenous Archaeology: Easier Said than Done

The Israel/Palestine conflict illustrates how different the theory of indigenous archaeology is in practice. The discrepancies involve how complicated the following issues are: determining cultural affiliation, the right to control and keep archaeological finds; pseudoarchaeology, the misrepresentation of the past; and repatriation, returning artifacts to their places of origin. Both groups claim precedence to the land and attempts to return Israeli occupied Palestinian territory have often involved one step forward and two steps back. In the face of this, determining which group has claim to the artifacts according to the mandates of indigenous archaeology is very difficult.

In nation-building conflicts such as this, who has cultural affiliation over excavation/archaeology is crucial. Artifacts are part of creating imagined communities as the identity of people and nations is built on past experiences. This is the motivation behind why groups want to regain their artifacts. Artifacts represent part of their history and national/ethnic identity and are therefore essential in substantiating their claim, so much so that they may be manipulated or misrepresented in the process.

In the West Bank pseudoarchaeologists, religious scholars studying biblical archaeology, in conjunction with the Israeli state have shaped the archaeological landscape. These pseudoarchaeologists suggest that all artifacts found are of Jewish heritage and serve as evidence to back up Israel’s religious/historical claim to the land.  However, these people are searching with the preconceived goal of finding artifacts that prove the land’s Biblical and Jewish connection, rather than being open to the possibility that artifacts found here may represent something different if interpreted through Palestinian traditions. Indigenous archaeology argues that artifacts must be interpreted within the relevant context, so as both groups provide the context here, dual or co-interpretations may be necessary.  Additionally, this pseudoarchaeology is a distortion of the scientific method which requires using facts to form conclusions not forming conclusions and then finding facts that support them.

Figure 1: Charred goat bones discovered at Qumran thought to be a genetic match for the leather of the Dead Sea Scrolls and provide a Jewish connection to the site

Figure 1: Charred goat bones discovered at Qumran thought to be a genetic match for the leather of the Dead Sea Scrolls and provide a Jewish connection to the site

Currently, Israel controls who has access to archaeological sites like Qumran in the West Bank, even though according to maps/treaties, this land is Palestinian.  Therefore Israel determines who excavates the area, religious pseudoarchaeologists, and through this control determines how artifacts are interpreted. Additionally, the Israeli government determines where artifacts go, which involves the transfer of the artifacts out of Palestinian territories and into Israel.  Since 1967 over 6000 sites in the West Bank have been excavated; these artifacts remain in military warehouses in Israel, completely hidden from the public until 2007 when Israeli researchers sued and obtained limited access.

Figure 2: A map of where in the West Bank is being excavated and each red dot is an excavation site in the West Bank whose artifacts haven't been published

Figure 2: A map of where in the West Bank is being excavated and each red dot is an excavation site in the West Bank whose artifacts haven’t been published

However, these Israeli officials and pseudoarchaeologists in control are “others” to the culture of the Palestinians, so artifacts that are more closely related to Palestine may be overlooked or misinterpreted to create the Israeli narrative. Alternatively if the Palestinians controlled who excavated and interpreted findings, they may overlook or misinterpret artifacts of Jewish heritage effectively “othering” the Israeli. This demonstrates how difficult it is to determine who has right to access when multiple groups can claim a place as their area of origin.

In archaeological theory, cultural affiliation and repatriation may seem clear cut but since the social and political conditions of the world are often very complicated it can be difficult to determine who should have claim to certain artifacts for their nation building. The role of pseudoarchaeologists further complicates these issues. So multiple indigenous interpretations and varied or shared cultural affiliations may be necessary when the alternative is inhibiting both groups from access to their history.

Read more:

Resources: Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities. London: Verso Books.

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn (2010) Archaeology Essentials. 2nd edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.

The Biblical Pseudo-Archeologists Pillaging the West Bank. (2013, February 28). Retrieved from The Atlantic:

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Unconventional or Contextual? The Power of the Present in Understanding the Past

If I told you to get a bunch of your friends, bring them to an old building, eat bones, drink blood, and kneel at the feet of a dead nail ridden body you would be taken aback.

What if I told you that your children were encouraged to hide their identities, visit strangers, and threaten those strangers to give them cavities?

These traditions sound unreasonable, when in actuality they are going to a Catholic mass and trick-or-treating. Their true meaning is lost when taken out of context and the same applies to archaeology. Although the field has improved from a time of speculation to one of evidentiary support, the discussion of some archaeological topics is still distorted. The Mayan civilization is an intriguing area of archaeological study, but how much truth is there in this civilization’s portrayal by popular media?

It is believed, by the general public, that the Mayans spread as far as Roatán, Honduras. This Mayanization began when early archaeologists used document sources by Christopher Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, to identify private collections of Roatán artifacts as Mayan. As Ferdinand depicted these Honduras natives as possessing Mayan watercrafts, the archaeologists misinterpreted their origins. This misinterpretation is substantiated due to the tourist attraction, Maya Keys. At this site there are replicas of Copán (Mayan) artifacts, and so the visiting public assumes that Honduras was Mayan as the island representatives have taken these artifacts out of context to increase tourism.

Figure 1: Mayan city Copán’s hieroglyphic stairway replicated in non-Mayan Maya Key, Roatán, Honduras

However, archaeologist Christopher Wells has been able to use modern tools to correct this geographic misconception. Through geographic information systems (GIS) he created maps and gathered environmental data to interpret the material culture found on the island and reveal that its artifacts fit the typology, or style, of the Pech and Miskitu Indians. These populations are indigenous to mainland Honduras, dating 600 to 1,000 years ago, and are not of Mayan descent.

Mayan civilization is also associated with the end of the world and black magic to maximize public interest. Yet when compared to present cultures and analyzed with modern techniques, these practices had a more mundane purpose. Due to volcanic activity, a natural formation process, archaeologists have uncovered well preserved art illustrating the Mayan’s use of rituals to prepare for war. This art shows tzompantli, or racks of skulls, were used not for dark voodoo, but to instill fear in their enemies much like current day burglar alarms do, and teotlacualli, or a paste made of poisonous insects for spirit communication, was used in order to be able to learn from the past when developing war strategies. Additionally, through examining the trash of the Mayan elite or artifact scatters of ceramic shards, which before the use of regional survey techniques could have been overlooked or lost to excavation, archaeologists have been able to determine that Mayan sorcery was simply a way of advancing political agenda demystifying the civilization further.

Figure 2:Mayan monument of royal woman conjuring deceased warrior spirit for aid with dispute between royal houses

Ultimately, to understanding the real Mayan civilization of the past the sampling techniques and context of the present must be applied.

Read More:

Figure 1:
Figure 2:

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn (2010) Archaeology Essentials. 2nd edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.
American Archaeology Magazine Vol. 16 No. 3 “That Old Black Magic” and “Revealing the Real Roatán”


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