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A Future for the Archaeology of Jerusalem

[Paper presented at the ASOR 2012 meetings in Chicago, slightly revised]




The present excavators in ancient Jerusalem consider their work relevant to their own community, but not to that in whose back and front yards they are digging, i.e. the Palestinian inhabitants of the Old City and nearby villages. They prefer to see only a distant past, thus helping their political sponsors imagine an Arab-free Jerusalem. In such a setting, the very act of talking about the past has to be decolonized. If ethical practice demands that archaeologists enter into a meaningful dialogue with the local community, then we surely must avoid settler and government agendas and discourses like the plague, stop taking their money, and actively concern ourselves with the present and the contemporary past, i.e., the archaeology and ethnography of the inhabitants of the historical basin itself.



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


For some years I have been engaged in a dispute with friends and colleagues – most recently in my own department at Tel Aviv University – over their participation in the government and settler-sponsored excavations in the City of David, within the village of Silwan. I could make easy work of it, and talk about the most recent examples of “archaeological Jerusalem Syndrome”, where small finds are instantly inflated to Biblical proportions. But that would let too many of my colleagues off the hook. After all, it was just the other day that I was asked by an undergrad, “what’s wrong with taking money wherever you can find it? How would we be able to dig if we didn’t?” – as if digging Jerusalem is some sort of absolute moral imperative. Perhaps some of you see things the same way.

So, I will try and lay it out: What is radically wrong with Jerusalem’s archaeology today, and how might it be fixed?

Jerusalem – more specifically, the historic basin of ancient Jerusalem, has been under excavation for nearly 150 years. For all those 150 years – despite the technical progress of archaeology, despite dramatic political changes, the wars, the mushrooming growth of the modern city – the guiding paradigm has remained pretty much the same: the neutral light of science, carried by western-educated excavators, was to be cast on remains long unknown, under-appreciated or misunderstood by the locals, be they Ottoman Turks, Palestinian Arabs, or Jews of the Old Yishuv.

This was the case with Capt. Charles Warren and the benighted Turk, with R.A.S. Macalister and the unruly, bickering orientals, with Kathleen Kenyon and the unscientific fundamentalists, and – for the past 40 years – with the unparalleled Israeli project, which has itself undergone several phases, beginning with the massive state-sponsored digs of the 1970s, whose stated aim was to reestablish a Jewish presence in the Old City (from which it had been banished during Jordanian rule), through the scientific turn of the Hebrew University Excavations directed by Yigal Shiloh, and culminating – in the past couple of decades – with the potent mix of theme-park tourist development and politically motivated Jewish settlement that wields archaeology as both a means of appropriating control of land and as a scientific disinfectant that neutralizes and sanitizes even the most overtly political actions. In all of these endeavors, the people living in and among the antiquities were viewed either as an obstacle or, at best, as grudging partners in strictly monetary accommodations. Their own concerns, histories, or attachments to the places studied were of little or no account.

It is hardly a coincidence that this scientific endeavor – the excavation (“recovery”) of Jerusalem – began within tunnels in the late 19th and early 20th c., emerged into the open for half a century, and has now retreated once more to tunnels and heavily guarded excavation zones.

Tunnels, which have been employed extensively in the Old City, along the Tyropean Valley, and around the spring of Gihon/’Ain Umm el-Daraj, are essentially an escape from reality, a denial of the significance of the above-ground world. Inside the tunnels, a true, recovered, Jerusalem can be called into existence. Connections can be forged – tangibly and imaginatively – between temporally or physically distant places. Tunnels allow you to get on with business away from prying eyes. One may well wonder what science it is that conducts its business underground.

In tunnels or behind fences, within their own universe of denial, archaeologists make believe that their work – which in fact touches the very roots of identity, the very fabric of collective memory – has no bearing on the real world. They can console themselves that ‘at least no-one gets killed’ – is that truly the case?

Meanwhile, that outside world – especially the 70 or 80 thousand Palestinians who are the bulk of the actual, living population of the historic basin, can also make believe that archaeology is irrelevant to their lives, that the tunnels are no more than a nuisance, that their very identity and social cohesion are not being materially and conceptually undermined, that they have no stake in what exists underground and that only the above-ground is of consequence.

As a project for the recovery of an imagined Jerusalem, the 150-year archaeological endeavor has been both spectacularly successful and spectacularly unsuccessful:

It has had remarkable success in unraveling the topography, the chronology and settlement history of Ancient Jerusalem; in its recovery of late Iron Age and Early Roman households and myriad fragments of evidence for life in the city; in the study of its water systems, fortifications, Herod’s temple esplanade and its environs.

Its most notable failures – in terms of its original motivations – have been its inability to produce hard evidence for David or Solomon (or any other king or prophet of Judah!); the lack of evidence for the First Temple itself; the fact that – if we had no Bible, we could form no coherent picture of Israelite or Jewish civilization from the remains: where are our Acropolis, our Forum, our Pyramids!?

But it has also failed at a more fundamental level: In its constant focus on recreating the Jerusalem of Judeo-Christian imagination, it has failed to provide a credible description of life itself in the city through 5000 years of existence. And, of course, it has failed to engage the interest, fears and hopes of the very people living in and among the antiquities.

These real and purported failures have not caused anyone to take pause and reconsider. On the contrary, they have only increased the appetite for excavation, wherever and whenever possible, while spawning an industry of imaginary discoveries – fakes, forgeries, and far-fetched interpretations. Archaeology is caught up in a spiral of unrealistic expectations that can never be satisfied and that threaten to converge with the most combustible elements of conflict in the city.

Clearly, the time has come to change course. We archaeologists must reconsider our position from its very foundations. We must aim to recreate Jerusalem’s archaeology in a way that will place more emphasis on people and less on scared texts; an archaeology that can promote understanding and allow everyone in the city a share in its heritage and the ability to respect others’ heritage without fear of losing their own.

In order to achieve that we must answer a simple question – whom does archaeology in fact serve? What is its purpose?

I would like to distinguish the justifications and main modes of archaeological practice under four headings: (a) Aesthetic, referring to the fetishization of ancient objects as aesthetic ideals, now most often encountered in the prestige industry surrounding the antiquities market, forgeries, and museum collections; (b) Evolutionary & progressive, referring to the lingering effect of the late-19th and early 20th century complicity of archaeology (as Science and Progress) in the western imperial, colonial and technological project; (c) Mythological, referring to the often-denied conjunction of popular, religious, and national mythologies with archaeology; these categorize ancient communities in modern ethnic terms, creating immutable human divisions and making conflict endemic and predetermined; and (d) Emancipatory (following Randal McGuire and others), referring first to an archaeology that is free to act independently as an interpretive science, and second to a material focus which has the potential to provide a voice to those whom history has silenced, to record resistance, to expose ideologies, and to even out the playing field of history; an archaeology that is engaged with the present, recognizes the context of its activity, and seeks to increase understanding and equality.

Of these four modes, the first three have been used, repeatedly, in Jerusalem. But it is the fourth, emancipatory mode, that has yet to be tried. Emancipatory archaeology is something that can be preached about by globe-travelling academics, but it has to be carried out in specific places. It is a localized practice with global implications. There are many entry points to the archaeological engagement with a local community; in one case this might be an excavation, for another, where breaking ground or uncovering a hidden past are viewed with distrust, engagement might begin elsewhere, such as an archaeology of the contemporary past.

What then is a viable future for archaeology in Jerusalem?

To begin with, archaeologists must take a stand regarding the identity of the affected community. The present excavators in ancient Jerusalem consider their work relevant to their own community, but not to that in whose back and front yards they are digging, i.e. the Palestinian inhabitants of the Old City and nearby villages. They prefer to see only a distant past, thus helping their political sponsors imagine an Arab-free Jerusalem. In such a setting, the very act of talking about the past has to be decolonized. If ethical practice demands that archaeologists enter into a meaningful dialogue with the local community, then we surely must avoid settler and government agendas and discourses like the plague, stop taking their money, and actively concern ourselves with the present and the contemporary past, i.e., the archaeology and ethnography of the inhabitants of the historical basin itself.

Using our craft to map the present archaeologically - i.e. through the material culture (even if only in its most accessible forms, like buildings, streets and alleys), we can re-inscribe places like Silwan village, the site of ancient Jerusalem, as a product of its own agency, creating a space for discussion about the more distant past that cannot be ignored as it interpenetrates the village fabric. An archaeological ethnography of Silwan would record the multiple interactions that the village has had with its physical setting, with the spring and pool that gave it its name, with the surviving relics of earlier settlement, with religious and historic traditions, and with nearby Jerusalem – its inhabitants and those who have visited it over the generations, the explorers, treasure-hunters and archaeologists who have sought ancient remains over the past century and a half, and the narratives introduced by those visitors.

This could be our entry point, and one that would serve the village community well in its struggle against de-materialization by settlers and by the archaeologists who work with them: talking about the encumbered present before trying to re-evaluate the past.

Beyond that, all of Jerusalem’s history can be reconceived in terms of the lives of its inhabitants. In this view, every period and every layer has equal importance. Each can be compared to the other, and the gap between the material evidence for people’s actual lives and ideological historical constructs can be investigated in depth. We can use archaeology to emancipate Jerusalem’s history itself from the weight of its own embedded conceptions. We can also accept that the archaeology of Jerusalem earns its true meaning through the lives of the current inhabitants of the city. They are not an encumbrance; they are the very purveyors of the city’s memories. In a place like Silwan/City of David, people palpably sense the instability caused by past structures and voids that are woven into the fabric of the village in a multi-temporal palimpsest. But in truth, such structures and voids are extant in collective memories and indeed in every individual mind. The physical entanglement of past and present might be this village's particular (mis)fortune, but it is also a compelling metaphor with broad implications. It is only after the present has been fully acknowledged that we may turn to the past-in-itself.

Jerusalem is not a ghost town, where time stands still, but a vibrant city; a religious and political arena. Its significance derives from the memories stored within it, as well as from its living fabric. The same is true of its antiquities: they acquire their meaning through interaction with living people. All of Jerusalem’s residents are entitled to live in it, but they must be able to hear its many voices. The power we wield to build and destroy makes us particularly responsible for preserving those voices and providing a space for the memories that give meaning to our lives.





Comments (1)


What a sensible and coherent article, made me want to volunteer and stand behind this very sensible man who takes into account the living people in the sites around Jerusalem and doesn't quote the bible as his god given right to excavate wherever he chooses. I would love to volunteer and dig on any site he supervises. Such an open mind in such a city. mfw
#1 - margaret white - 09/29/2013 - 01:19






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