If politics can get in the way of archeology, what happens when archeology is forced to serve politics? We're thinking here about nationalism - the pursuit of cultural identity and political power by religious, ethnic or national groups.
Archeology can help the nationalist in several ways. It can literally create a past - real or imagined - that justifies a national claim to territory. It can create a "how great we once were" mentality that increases social cohesion or the desire to sacrifice for the nation.
These days, says Wilkie, "Nationalism in archeology has been a very hot topic. It's arising everywhere. It's using archeology to justify a relationship with a past that might not be the real past."
Delicate phrasing, but nothing new, Sabloff says. "Archeological information has been used and misused for centuries, if not millennia, but we're much more conscious of it today. Archeologists are well aware that they have to be very careful about what they say, and how they say it."
Archeological pollution, Nazi-style
SS head Heinrich Himmler was particularly engaged in the effort to subvert archeology to political ends. As in all things Nazi, it went from bad to worse, and the leader of this "academic" exercise ended up committing war crimes, as you can see from this PBS blurb:
"The chief administrator of the Ahnenerbe, Dr. Wolfram Sievers, had been heavily involved in the criminal medical experiments that were carried out on Jews in concentration camps, all to prove racial differences and the superiority of the Aryan race. After Germany's defeat in 1945, Sievers was brought before a war crimes tribunal, found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed on June 2, 1948. The archaeological world of the Ahnenerbe died with Hitler, Himmler and Sievers; the Ahnenerbe, too, melted away. Many of its top archaeologists, however, returned, unpunished, to university life, only to re-emerge as leading academics in postwar Germany."
Could be true
Against that background, the resurgence of nationalism in archeology is "very problematic," says Elizabeth Stone, "but a lot depends on how it's done." While Iraq glorifies its past (a tactic also used by the Shah of Iran, who practically crowned himself Emperor of Persia), "Iraq really had that past, it was really a great player in that part of world." Indeed, the ancient civilizations of present-day Iraq, variously called Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Sumerian, invented writing, the city state, irrigation controls and much of agriculture.
But Middle-Eastern archeology can also produce absurdities. A palace archive found in Ebla, Syria (from 3,000 to 2,000 BC), was difficult to read, and "Some people immediately started making Biblical claims," Stone says. "They said it was the ancient text of Sodom and Gomorrah.. These "wild claims," she adds, could have become the basis for territorial claims.
In reality, she points out, the text was a list of metals - a reflection of the practical roots of writing.
You speaking my tongue?
In the absence of written documents from the ancient Macedonians, this archeologist says, "My answer is to pick up a piece of pottery and say, 'If you can tell me what language this potsherd speak, I can tell you what the Macedonians spoke."
Courtesy Norman Itzkowit.
Greek archaeologists, our informant tells us, traditionally ignored the period of Ottoman rule, from 1458 to 1912. (The Ottoman Empire was based in Istanbul, now Turkey). "In most excavations, until recently, they would dig right through the Ottoman period." This was particularly true during the 1960s and '1970s, but is less so today, when tensions between Greece and Turkey have eased.
When whites in the early 19th century speculated about these effigy mounds, Sabloff says, "they were unwilling to see them as being built by Native Americans," and instead tried to prove that the Toltecs, Aztecs or 10 lost tribes of Israel had built the effigy mounds.
A perfect example exists in Wisconsin, where a mound site built by Mississippian tribes was dubbed Aztalan, after the Aztecs, their supposed builders. "Aztalan, the name itself says it all," observes Sabloff.
Political mindset can also determine how archeological finds are interpreted, says archeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer. Jericho was first excavated during two periods of European colonial expansion and worldwide conflict (from 1907 to 1908 and again from 1930 to 1936).
The discoverers "saw a tower and a wall, and they interpreted it as a fortification, in the framework of the world conflict that was occurring at the time. More recently, scholars have reexamined the evidence, and determined that the wall was probably for protection against flooding and the tower may have been for storage or a watch tower."
At this archeological site, war was no accident.
©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.