Nationalism and Record-Keeping in Archaeology

One of the major questions that came up during Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s lecture, “Decolonization and the Jews of the Sahara: National Myth Making in Israel, Algeria, and France” was who has the right to write the history of Algerian Jews? After the decolonization of Algeria, several countries claimed to be in charge of collecting documents pertaining to Jewish history in Algeria both under French rule and the following period of decolonization. Why were France, Algeria, and Israel so concerned with who got to write the history of the Algerian Jews? The answer is nationalism. Archaeological and historical evidence is paramount in establishing a country’s legitimacy and generating national pride.

In his book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, Kenneth Feder notes that nationalism is one of the most common motivating factors among people that try to use archaeological evidence for their own personal gain. Feder writes that the need “to show that ‘we’ were here first or that ‘we’ were civilized before ‘you’ has led some to play fast and loose with the archaeological facts”(11). One major example of playing fast and loose with the archaeological facts is seen in the record-keeping before, during, and after Algerian decolonization. There is evidence that many documents were forged, giving a false impression of the history of Algerian Jews.

an organized way to store documents?

Incongruities in record keeping further complicated the debate over who had access to certain documents which country should be in charge of storing and protecting all of these documents. During, before, and after Algerian decolonization documents associated with the Jews of the Sahara were lost, buried, hidden and falsified. Each person or group of people in charge of creating, recording, storing, and maintaining these documents at various points in history used different methods. At some points record-keepers such as the Jewish leadership of Algeria were very lax in their record keeping, at other points documents were forged and falsified. Algerian Jews immigrating to France also changed their names to assimilate into French culture and adopt a new identity which further complicated the records.

This inconsistency in record-keeping makes it extremely difficult for archaeologists and historians to go back and decipher these documents. As we discussed in class today one of the standards of being an ethical archaeologist is properly recording data in way that all other archaeologists will understand it. We also discussed the importance of sharing data and documents, something Algerian, French, and Israeli government officials were reluctant to do.

Sharing is Caring!


The “Evidence” of Pseudoscience

Although there is substantial historical, archaeological, and geological evidence that refutes the existence of Atlantis, people continue to search for Atlantis. I think people ignore the abundant evidence because Atlantis has a certain mystique. Like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, people find “evidence” of Atlantis because they want to believe so badly that it does exist. But this is one of the things that separates the science of archaeology from pseudoscience. Archeologists do not work to prove something because seeking a certain outcome, setting out to prove a theory results in bias.

The general public doesn’t care about the archaeological evidence because they don’t understand it. The video we watched in class on Tuesday about Robert Sarmast’s search for Atlantis (skip to 3:15). In his search for Atlantis, Sarmust is extremely excited by the discovery of a wall. This may seem like sufficient evidence for the general public and affirm their faith in Sarmast’s capabilities as an archaeologist, but upon closer inspection we notice that the wall Sarmust finds is completely straight but all the maps of Atlantis, feature curved, semi-circular walls. Sarmast may have found archaeological

this map of Atlantis features curved, not straight walls

evidence of some feature but there are a lot of straight walls out there to be found, what makes him so positive that this is Atlantis? All other possibilities must be eliminated before Sarmast can truly claim his as Atlantis. Simply finding one wall isn’t good enough, yet this seems to satisfy the general public’s need for evidence. Sarmast’s evidence is similar to Erich von Daniken’s use of irrelevant statistics to prove the existence of prehistoric aliens. In his documentary “Chariots of the Gods” von Daniken provides the viewer with completely irrelevant data, such as the distance of a certain road, or the height of a certain monuments: von Daniken seems to bombard the general public with statistics in order to distract them from the absurdity of his theories.

While the truth of pseudoscientists’ “discoveries” is certainly questionable, this does not stop the general public from playing into the hands of entrepreneurs who take advantage of the general public’s fascination with these theories and discoveries. For example von Daniken’s mystery park is a theme park completely devoted to his theory of ancient aliens (and making money). Entrepreneurs have also profited off of the general public’s fascination with Atlantis by constructing an aquatic themed resort in the Bahamas that invites guests to discover the mysteries of Atlantis.

Guests can pay exorbitant amounts to "discover" Atlantis in the Bahamas

While archaeologists can’t necessarily dissuade the public from believing what they want to believe, the best they can do is to continue to provide actual scientific evidence to refute the ridiculous claims of pseudoarchaeologists like Sarmast and von Daniken.

Features vs. Artifacts & Ecofacts

I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of archaeology is that artifacts are more important than features in telling us about the past. When most people think about archaeology and excavations the first thing that comes to mind after gold, curses, and Indiana Jones of course, are artifacts: chipped ceramics, arrowheads, statues, bones and mummies. They often forget about features such as stone walls, buildings, hearths, storage pits, and roads.

I think one of the main reasons people seem to care more about artifacts and ecofacts than features is because they can relate to them more easily. For example people are often more excited about finding ancient tools than an old road because they can physically hold a stone tool in their hand and compare it to more modern tools that they use daily, whereas most of the general public doesn’t think twice about the development of roads over time. Another example is the excavation of bones, either human or animal. I think people feel a strange connection to bones because we have a fascination with death. All cultures have certain burial practices and beliefs regarding death but for some reason most people would be more shocked and excited to discover bones on their property (ecofacts) rather than a stone wall (feature) surrounding a cemetery.

Stone Wall

While artifacts and ecofacts are extremely useful in teaching us about past activities and environments, features are just as helpful in finding out about past cultures. They help us understand the spatial distribution and organization of human activities and can reveal information about construction methods and the resources available during a certain time period (Ashmore 149).

Confederate Civil War Fort Excavation: Fort Pocahontas on Jamestown Island in Virginia

The video above shows the excavation of a bombproof shelter that was a feature of Fort Pocahontas on Jamestown Island during the Civil War. I think it’s really interesting for a number of reasons. First of all the bombproof shelter was a part of Fort Pocahontas that was constructed in 1861, the southern half of which was built directly on the remains of James Fort which was originally constructed in 1607.

One really confusing aspect of archaeology to explain is stratigraphy and I think this video does a good job of showing different layers of strata in the excavation of the bombproof shelter. When we looked at the sratigraphy diagram in class on Tuesday we all had a difficult time determining which layers contained features and which were simply strata. I think the archeologist in this video does a good job at showing the coloration of the different strata being excavated and touching on the often misunderstood concept that the top layer always contains the most recent features or artifacts.