Abusing the Past

A few weeks ago, biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers came to UNCC for the 20th annual Tate lecture. Her talk was entitled “Holy Land Archaeology: Where the Past Meets the Present.”

I have some familiarity with Meyers’ scholarly work, and I expected her to speak about the religious culture of ancient Israelite women, as she does in a number of her books.

Instead, she spoke about a variety of archaeological sites in Israel/Palestine, and how the push to excavate some of these is greatly influenced by politics in the region- a topic I found no less fascinating.

For example, the site at Beit Alpha, a secular kibbutz founded in the 1920’s, included an ancient, elaborate mosaic floor depicting a menorah. The group who had founded the kibbutz wanted to cover it right back up- to them it smelled way too much like religion. Other groups, however, saw something that would lend support to zionist goals: if there was proof of an ancient Jewish presence in the land, it would theoretically support a modern Jewish return.

To someone with little experience with archaeology, I was somewhat surprised at how much certain political agendas influence what is considered academically important. I suppose this shouldn’t have been news to me, given how much of academia is political no matter the field.

Still, the scholar in me was sickened when Meyers spoke about the site at Sepphoris. Known as the “city of peace” for refusing to go to war against the Romans in 67-68 C.E., the remains of the area demonstrate multiple cultures cohabiting in relative harmony.

The artistic depictions of Jewish, Pagan, and Christian images blended together could serve as proof that there have been places and times in our history when we not solely focused on converting or killing one another. However, it seems as though those responsible for the preservation of the site have a different agenda.

According to Meyers, there has been a massive disregard of a 12th century crusader church that stands on the edge of the site. There were attempts by Meyers and some others to have this area included as part of the preserved historical site, but these attempts were not successful.

This does not seem like a move to preserve history so that we and our descendants can learn and explore these beautiful and ancient buildings. It seems to depend on “whose history” a certain building or artifact is associated with in order to be deemed worthy of protection.

On some level, I can understand a bit of hesitation, especially with regard to this church. There has been so much violence done by Christians against Jews in the past that I suppose it could feel wrong to give this church the same protection, especially if the goal is to establish the land as unquestionably Jewish.

This is where the problem is. A nationalist agenda is masquerading in the guise of preserving important historical sites and artifacts. I think that this is an abuse. The past is not passive or static, and we all choose how we want to interpret (or alter) the past. As Carol Meyers said, archaeology does things. Unfortunately, archaeology often does not get any input into what these things are. Far too often scholars either decide what it is they want to do with given research, or are forced to emphasize certain facets over others based on who is giving them funding.

What is the most depressing is I don’t see this stopping any time soon. Our research (and our livelihood) is too reliant upon the support and funding we receive from our institutions and grants. Academic freedom can only go so far when your work is only partially your own.