Controlling Historical Narratives

Who deserves control over a historical narrative when its key players are spread across nations and cultures?  This is the question that Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein attempts to answer with her research on the documentation of Jews living under French rule in Algeria from 1830 to 1962.  She began by studying the history of the colonization and its societal impact on Jews living in both the northern and southern regions of the nation.  The French conquered northern Algeria first and subsequently attempted to transform the Jews into typical French citizens.  Therefore, they were granted the same legal status as the colonizers, a markedly different one than was later granted to the Jews of southern Algeria.  Those Jews were more resistant to subjugation and therefore declared indigenous subjects.  This label “outsourced” legal control to the rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community.

The difference in treatment of the Jews became a problem when, towards the end of the Algerian war of independence, the French decided they wanted to undo the north/south differentiation they had created to allow Jews to immigrate to France.  To do so, they forged paperwork for those southern Jews that didn’t have any.  This documentation was particularly faulty because some Jews wished to change their names to make them sound more French or to claim a relation to a famous historical figure.

            Nevertheless, the project was eventually completed and many Jews did move to France when they had the opportunity.  The trials of such a fragmented cultural identity, however, were far from over.  Firstly, the state of Israel considered the relocation a betrayal of the Zionist project because so few Jews elected to move to Israel.  Although immigrants were apparently treated like second-class citizens while there, Israel continues to have shaky relations with Algeria to this day.  On the historical preservation front, a huge debate rose over which nation had the right to those papers of southern Algerian Jews.  French officials wanted the list to confirm citizenship and retain evidence of their colonization.  Algerians wanted the list to somewhat undo said colonization.  And Israel, to a certain extent, wanted the list because of that tension between it and those Jews that moved to France.

Professor Stein was unable to find any easy answers to the question of ownership, particularly due to the lack of international cooperation and clear access to historical databases.  These difficulties exemplify the complexity of narrative ownership due to colonization and immigration.  Countries across the globe, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, are confronted with this same issue today.

Using Archaeology to Confirm the Past

One of the reasons that people don’t understand archaeology is the fact that archaeology can be manipulated to either fit with or alter the public’s perception of the past.  For example, the Cardiff Giant hoax centered on a supposed “large, petrified body” found by the farmer Stub Newell in 1869.  People travelled for miles and paid rising entry fees to catch a glimpse of it.  Over time, the giant’s popularity mounted, despite the fact that several archaeologists and scientists examined the body and declared it to be a fake, citing the soft stone, tool marks, and lack of deterioration as indicators that it was not nearly as old as Newell claimed it was.  Eventually, Professor Othniel C. Marsh deemed it to be a “remarkable fake”, and it was revealed that Newell’s relative George Hull had commissioned the sculpture and gone through great lengths to disguise it as an ancient being.

Cardiff Giant

The people’s continued belief in the Cardiff Giant exemplifies the use of archaeology to fit with a common belief.  In the 1800s, the stories of the Bible were seen as truths rather than allegories.  Therefore, those who believed the biblical tales of giants roaming the earth were delighted to find proof of these stories, and clung to it despite growing evidence of the hoax.  While in reality, ancient peoples may have found large, extinct animals and simply thought they were giants, in the religious 19th century, holy texts were absolute.  In this way, archaeology can blind people to the truth just as easily as it can enlighten them through offering a confirmation of spiritual beliefs.  (Feder)

At the opposite end of the spectrum lies the destruction of ancient relics in China.  China’s cultural revolution involved not only the reshaping of socioeconomic structure but also the complete elimination of the structure that had preceded it.  As a way of insuring that citizens fully embraced the new, communist society, the government destroyed many artifacts and buildings dating to the dynasties of China’s greatest emperors.  Destroying these relics not only prevented people from studying past cultural practices but also kept them from the very thing that the Cardiff Giant allowed—confirmation of a past that they might long for.  Even though Chinese citizens have offered to pay for the conservation of certain relics, the government has denied these requests.  (

Destroying the old world

Both of these examples relay the way in which archaeology can give people hope by revealing an aspect of the past they believe.  While some, such as Newell and Hull, use this power to make money, others wish to use it to understand their own fading heritage.  Along this range lie many pitfalls and ulterior motives of people looking to uncover the past, which can lead to a misunderstanding of archaeology.

Bridging the Lab and the Dig Site

One of the main reasons the general public is confused about archaeology is the fact that they do not understand modern technology’s role in studying the past.  The classic image of an archaeologist is of someone in the field, digging with a shovel or trowel.  People picture a very isolated dig site without any sort of modern equipment and cannot understand why professional archaeologists need training for such straightforward work.  Because the act of digging seems so physical and basic, people assume that archaeology is not a science but guesswork.  They do not know that today, there are many advanced scientific ways to gather data about an artifact or ecofact.

This past week, we looked at flakes of obsidian in class.  When asked to speculate on what tools these flakes were, some people suggested that they were knives because of the way the stones fit into the palms of their hands.  However, it is dangerous to try and determine utility from something that varies as much as hand size does.  People have even mistaken ordinary stones for artifacts using this method.  Professor Beisaw instead suggested that one could determine usage by looking at the flakes under a microscope.  If the edge of a flake had been worn down, one would know it was used to cut something.  From there, one might be able to hypothesize more specifically about how it was used.  On the other hand, maybe the microscope would reveal that it was simply an abandoned remnant of a larger piece of stone that had been made into an arrowhead.

Obsidian Flake

Professor Beisaw also explained that a gun-like instrument that could determine a stone’s chemical makeup had been developed.  This technology helps identify whether a tool was made from local materials or materials from further away by scanning nearby natural resources.  If none of the natural resources match the tool, it not only reveals more information about the tool itself but also suggest that trade once occurred within the region.  In this way, using technology to analyze artifacts helps determine the exchange systems of ancient cultures.

Wendy Ashmore mentions a similar type of technology in Discovering Our Past.  On pages 200-201, she describes X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and neutron activation analysis (NAA) as analytical methods that determine the physical and chemical makeup of artifacts.  X-ray fluorescence works by releasing photons due through radiation that correspond to particular elements.  (  Neutron activation analysis involves targeting nuclei with neutrons, producing a specific gamma ray reaction. (

Neutron Activation Analysis

These technologies only scratch the surface when it comes to the methods used to study archaeological sites.  In addition to collecting artifacts of interest, archaeologists use both their knowledge of historical context and scientific instruments to paint a more complete picture of past civilizations.