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Jerusalem’s “What Me Worry” Archaeology





When you are digging 20 or 100 yards away from the Temple Mount you are in the heart of politics, not above them. When you take money from settlers you are in the heart of politics. When you excavate in the midst of a Palestinian population that is under constant surveillance and deprived of its civil rights you are in the heart of politics. When your excavation and research concern only the ancient history of Jerusalem while remaining oblivious to 1000 years of history in Silwan you are in the heart of politics. Now, when you are in the heart of politics, yet state that you are above politics, you are in denial.



See Also: A Future for the Archaeology of Jerusalem



By Raphael Greenberg
Associate Professor in Archaeology
University of Tel Aviv
May 2013


A recent story on the latest excavations in ancient Jerusalem by Dafna Laskin in the Jerusalem Post, as well as an editorial in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper calling for the disengagement of archaeology from right-wing politics, cast a stark light on the “what me worry” sentiment often heard in the archaeological community: If the archaeology is good, why fret about the funding or the politics?

This question is based on two premises: (a) the source of funding is not relevant to the quality of archaeological practice; (b) archaeology can and should be kept apart from politics. Both premises are flawed.

Funding affects archaeological practice both directly and indirectly. To begin with, research design is closely linked to the nature of the funding body. Science-based funding requires research aims, design and methods to be spelled out in advance. Excavations are then geared – in tempo, means and methods – to achieve results. Where the funding comes from non-scientific sources, other considerations are at the forefront. In the City of David National Park, all excavations – including those of Tel Aviv University – are underwritten by the park developers, i.e., the El’ad settler association. In Givati parking lot, excavation is geared primarily toward the preparation of a large foundation pit for the future visitors’ center, which is to be built over any antiquities discovered there. The developers’ main interest here is space – how much construction will be allowed – and time – how soon they can get started. This affects the tempo of excavation – year-round digging over the past six years – and decisions on what to preserve and how deep to go in the large foundation pit. In the case of the TAU excavation, the park landscape architects have asked the IAA to clear the lower slopes of the City of David (outside the Iron II and Bronze Age fortifications and well away from the controversial “palace” area, but only a few yards from the houses of Silwan) down to bedrock. This is not a research agenda but an aesthetic one, promoted by the park developers for whom archaeologists are merely a necessary evil. The location is unlikely to provide answers to the questions that are of greatest interest to the professors at Tel Aviv University.

Funding also influences archaeologists in more subtle ways. Because their livelihoods are dependent on the continued funding, archaeologists will cultivate their funders in various ways. One seemingly innocuous way is to employ the popular terminology for cultures and periods favored by the funding body (in the case of Jerusalem it is Elad, the Jewish settler organization). The Iron Age becomes the “First Temple Period” – even for those periods in which the existence of a temple remains archaeologically moot; the Persian period becomes the “Period of the Return” and so on. Archaeologist’s socialization over the past decade has come to include participation in settler fundraisers, acceptance of Elad-sponsored prizes, and other developer-sponsored activities. Recently, in a hearing held by Jerusalem’s Planning Commission, the Director of the IAA cited the written support of Professors Finkelstein, Lipschits, Naaman and Reich in a response to Professor Yoram Tsafrir, who represented 70 Israeli archaeologists critical of planned construction in the Western Wall plaza. The professorial support seems neatly correlated with Tel Aviv University’s recent integration in the IAA’s City of David projects. In such a manner are archaeologists gradually absorbed into the public face of the settlers’ Jerusalem, with all its attendant, well-documented biases.

This brings us to the second false premise: that archaeology can remain above politics. To put it bluntly, when you are digging 20 or 100 yards away from the Temple Mount you are in the heart of politics, not above them. When you take money from settlers you are in the heart of politics. When you excavate in the midst of a Palestinian population that is under constant surveillance and deprived of its civil rights you are in the heart of politics. When your excavation and research concern only the ancient history of Jerusalem while remaining oblivious to 1000 years of history in Silwan you are in the heart of politics. Now, when you are in the heart of politics, yet state that you are above politics, you are in denial. This becomes as political a stance as any: an affirmation that archaeology is naturally, a-politically, an Israeli project and a wedge in Palestinian Silwan. No amount of sieving, sherd-counting, text criticism or ancient DNA analysis can alter that equation. Rather, you must admit that you act within a political context, and then work to realign your archaeology in a way that will promote the human values, such as tolerance and understanding, in which you claim to believe.

Archaeologists may make history, but in circumstances over which they have little control. They must therefore be doubly concerned with the consequences of their work and avoid putting themselves in the service of those who would encourage conflict and injustice.