The Pitfall of Nationalism in Archaeology

At its core, Archaeology is about the formation of identities. One aspect of this is the formation of national identities. In Professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s lecture, “Decolonization and the Jews of the Sahara: National Myth Making in Israel, Algeria, and France,” she addresses a specific example of this issue by asking who has the rights or control of the Algerian Jews’ past history? In order to answer this, one has to take into consideration the historical and archaeological records. However, due to nationalism, archaeology and history can often be misused for a country’s own benefit.

After the Algerian War of Independence, the French government wanted to allow Jews from both North and South Algeria to immigrate to France. The process became complicated and messy since before the war the French created a huge divide between the North and South Jews. They granted the North Jews legal status so that they could become French citizens. The South Jews, however, were much more resistant to French control. Therefore, France did not give them legal rights. This lack of documentation for the South Jews became a critical issue after the war since they could not immigrate to France without the legal documents. In response, the French government forged new documents for them.

Who truly has the rights to the Algerian Jew's history?

The current debates center on ownership of these documents. France, Algeria, and Israel claim rights to them for the benefit of their own nations. To the French, the Algerians are a part of their history and past. Without the documents, France would lose records of its supposed citizens and colonization and therefore a critical part of its national history and identity. Algeria claims these records since it wants to reverse France’s claims of colonization and retain its people as a part of its history. Israel took offense to the mass exodus of Jews to France instead of Israel. Due to this resentment and tension, Israel wants to claim rights the documents as well. Overall, nationalism underlies the motives of all these countries.

Thus, if archaeology is used to help settle this issue, archaeologists must be objective and implement a scientific method. Nationalism is one of the biggest reasons why archaeology is misused (Feder 11). France, Algeria, and Israel each have their own personal and nationalistic reasons for wanting rights to the documents of the Jews. If the archaeologists are biased by these reasons, then the issue will only become more problematic, and contentious debates will never end.

The Archaeology of Fantasy

Any child who read the Harry Potter series has probably spent hours imagining and hoping that the world of Hogwarts was more than just a fantasy. Late nights were spent concocting polyjuice potion in the kitchen, and countless hours were lost stalking the mailman on our 11th birthday. Eventually though, we grew out of our fantasies, but we still had a warm place in our heart for Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Hogwarts.

A rendering of Atlantis from the website. Sarmast claims that he found Atlantis after detecting circular like structures near Cyprus, but surely such a glorious empire should yield more material evidence.

Certain legends, however, have withstand the test of time and consistently blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. In Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, he wrote about a war between Ancient Athens and the Empire of Atlantis. This story has spawned countless theories and books about the reality of the lost continent. Some individuals go as far as pouring millions of dollars of resources into locating it by using “archaeology,” such as the case of Robert Sarmast’s “Discovery of Atlantis” project. Modern archaeological methods and geology have disproved the myth. For instance, no one has ever found any physical remains of advanced naval ships, buildings, or bones in any supposed location of Atlantis (Beisaw), and the processes of plate tectonics rule out the possibility of a submerged continent (Feder 220). Furthermore, by learning about the cultural context of Plato’s era, the reader can understand that Plato used Atlantis as a plot device to convey a moral lesson. In his story, the protagonist, the Athenians, defeated the technologically advanced but morally corrupt empire, Atlantis (Feder 200). Therefore, Plato’s primary goal was to extol the virtuous society of the Athenians and the Greeks in general.

Oddly enough, I rarely believed that Hogwarts was real, and yet, before this course, I actually thought that Atlantis existed. They’re both magical places written down on text, so why did I doubt the existence of one but not the other?  Personally, I believe that the primary reason is cultural familiarity. Originally, my unfamiliarity with the ancient culture of Plato’s times led me to indulge in romanticized notions about a lost world. However, once I learned more about the ideals and patriotism of Plato’s culture, I could look past the fantasy. I realized that Plato wasn’t trying to document a lost world. He, like JK Rowling or any other author, was just trying to convey his ideas about his culture through literature.

Therefore, I believe that the public form misconceptions about archaeology because they do not understand the anthropological theories about cultures to interpret archaeological data objectively. On top of material analysis, archaeologists learn about the literature, history, and art of a culture in order to detect cultural bias and sort through the reality from the myth. There’s nothing wrong with the usage of text to locate a site, but it is crucial to familiarize ourselves with the text’s cultural context and history so we can look past our own beliefs and interpret material and written records objectively. For instance, Robert Sarmast became so infatuated with his romantic ideas about Atlantis that he ignored the lack of real archaeological data. I wouldn’t be surprised though if in a couple of hundred years people unfamiliar with Harry Potter and our culture will try to “prove” the existence of Hogwarts.

Actually, Hogwarts has already been found in Universal Studios at Orlando, Florida. This is a joke.


Soiling The Name of Archaeology

Last week I experienced an awkward but relatable moment in my archaeology class. “What’s the substance in the ground,” Professor Beisaw asked. The answer seemed obvious so I stated, “Dirt.” “That’s right. It’s soil! Most people would have incorrectly answered dirt,” she explained. “Oops,” I thought and immediately broke eye contact! I then thanked the heavens that I have a voice softer than a mouse and that Professor Beisaw heard a different student answered the question before me! She further explained that the soil around an artifact holds valuable information about the past, while dirt is simply the stain on a shirt. I have walked on this earth and felt the soil between my toes for over 19 years, and never once have I thought about the stories that soil might tell. I have even soiled its name by assuming that it was the same as dirt! I believe that people misunderstand archaeology because they disregard the importance of the artifact’s surroundings, specifically soil. I will attempt to illustrate soil’s importance through the use of stratigraphy.

First, the ground is composed of sloping or marginally horizontal layers or strata of different soil on top of each other. They can usually be distinguished by their color, texture, or composition. As Wendy Ashmore notes in her book, Discovering Our Past, this is called stratification. She further points out that the sequence of these layered deposits obeys the Law of Superposition, meaning the sequence of the strata reflects the order of deposits. Archaeological assessment of stratification is known as stratigraphy. The benefits of stratigraphy are astounding, but numerous people overlook them. Most notably, by recording and analyzing the artifact’s location in relation to other artifacts and strata, archaeologists can determine the function and age of the artifact.

This stratification example provides a wealth of information. Due to the law of superposition, the natural subsoil was deposited first. We can assume that the Iron Age ditch and post-hole were from the same occupation because they are in the same strata. The Iron Age soil was deposited next and then the Roman dump soil. The Roman wall was then built because it was placed deep into the soil, and next the Roman floor was built. After that are the remains of the Roman building. The medieval pit must have been built before the wall since the wall’s edge is slightly in the pit. These lines of analysis continue for the entire stratification. All this information allows archaeologist to determine the relative age of the artifacts and understand specific time periods.

The example also demonstrates the complexity of stratigraphy. Behavioral and transformative processes can disrupt strata. In a class exercise, students found between 10 to 15 strata and 9 to 16 features in the picture. These results were anything but conclusive. However, through careful examination and a well thought out research question, an archaeologist can distinguish the important aspects of the stratification. By attempting to understand the intricacies of this archaeological technique, individuals can come to understand the field as a whole.