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.

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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:

Punk Archaeology: Entertaining or Educating

At first glance, punk archaeology seems like an oxymoron, how could punk, inherently about disobeying the man, possibly have anything to do with the disciplined study of artifacts? However punk archaeology gets its name because it aims to approach archaeology in an unorthodox manner, similar to how punk musicians approached their music. Punk archaeology looks at, not just the ancient but also, the overlooked recent objects as artifacts, and through this study critiques modern society publicly, in order to reach and effect a wider audience. But just because punk archaeology’s intends to challenge established modes of thought doesn’t mean it succeeds.

The Atari excavation of the landfill in Alamogordo, NM, is an archetype of punk archaeology but does this excavation challenge the typical conventions of archaeology and/or the public’s established beliefs about archaeology? As Andrew Reinhard mentions in “Why We Dug Atari”, archaeologists doing the Atari excavation plan on publishing their findings in academic journals (the common end goal of most traditional archaeology) and set out not to dispel the widespread Atari myth but rather to examine the stratigraphy of the site and the lifecycle of consumer products (Caraher, Guins, Reinhard, Rothaus, & Weber, 2014). This excavation examined the recent past to of criticize our current culture, in this case our culture of consumerism and convenience where we quickly discard whatever isn’t the latest model. But rather than go against traditional archaeology this topic is a common archaeological pursuit already being examined by garbologists. Therefore, although this excavation was done with a bulldozer, an unconventional tool, to find a video game, an unconventional artifact, the core of the excavation was rather conventional.

 Use of bulldozer in Atari landfill excavation

Figure1: Use of bulldozer in Atari landfill excavation

Furthermore as there is no real explanation of how these punk archaeologists excavated this site, specifically whether the trash was recorded through standard scientific measures, it’s unclear how unconventional this study was. If conventional scientific measures were used it will increase adherence to normal modes of archaeological thinking while if scientific measures were not used can this study even be classified as archaeology? And if it falls into some other disparate field then it can’t be challenging archaeological norms anymore then a Chinese speaker can, by speaking Chinese, challenge a Spanish speaker’s standard mode of speaking Spanish.

 On-site audience consisted of gamers who were more interested in the video game than the archaeology

Figure2: On-site audience consisted of gamers who were more interested in the video game than the archaeology

Additionally this excavation was highly publicized, with an on-site audience of gamers and media coverage to reach the general public. But just because the public was present doesn’t mean their archaeological views were challenged or even that they got the punk archaeologist’s purpose. The punk archaeologists were trying to challenge the conception that archaeology is restricted to the study of extravagant long gone cultures and how instead even what has more recently been discarded and forgotten can provide valuable information and cultural insight. However, the gamers present only wanted to know if Atari had dumped/hidden its rejects and showed up for this myth busting. Even the team of archaeologists admitted that their true purpose was overlooked in media and by the public (Caraher, Guins, Reinhard, Rothaus, & Weber, 2014). In conclusion, instead of challenging modes of archaeological thought punk archaeology adheres to them and, due to the disconnect between the purpose of the excavation and the entertainment experienced by the public, is also unsuccessful in correcting/expanding the public’s opinion on archaeology despite the potential media attention grants it to do so.


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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.

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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”