ABSTRACT

What has been achieved—or can realistically be achieved—by calls for the decolonization of archaeology? In the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean, as elsewhere, discourse about the past is often closely entangled with concerns of the present, and the idea of decolonizing archaeological practice in this war–torn region has particular relevance to its intractable ethic and political cultural conflicts. By more deeply examining the ideological roots and possible political outcomes of decolonized archaeology, this contribution attempts to contextualize the increasingly prominent intellectual trend of archaeological activism within the broader field of postcolonial theory and explores its relationship to other forms of authorized heritage discourse. This Forum showcases an essay by Neil Silberman that explores new frontiers in decolonizing archaeology and four book reviews of Yannis Hamiliakis and Raphael Greenberg’s timely book entitled: Archaeology, Nation, and Race: Confronting the Past, Decolonizing the Future in Greece and Israel.

Despite widespread calls by international organizations, academic institutions, and influential scholars for the decolonization of archaeology, museology, and heritage management (e.g., Smith and Wobst 2005; Greenberg and Hamilakis 2022; Wali and Collins 2023; Shepherd 2023), the day-to-day practice of these fields in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean—as in so many other world regions—is, sadly, more colonialist than ever. The region-wide exploitation of archaeology by governments and private economic interests has rendered archaeology’s basic activities of painstaking empirical documentation and physical conservation quite secondary to far wider contemporary goals. Archaeology has always been to some extent a modern ideological exercise to explain and illustrate the dynamics of history through material culture, but the sometimes-grandiose historical insights derived from both chance finds and systematic excavations often far exceed that which can be proved. The resonance of particular archaeological interpretations comes from their persuasiveness in the sociopolitical context in which they are found (Lafrenz Samuels 2015).

That context is both dynamic and disputed. Today, the only certainties are the uses to which archaeology is put: economic growth (through permitting of building sites via “salvage archaeology” or investment in tourist development), political legitimation (through commemoration of “national patrimony” and maintenance of territorial control), and leisure-time entertainment (through its trivialization in the mass media and heritage tourism as a nostalgic escape from the pressures of modern life). Indeed, the recognition of some archaeological finds as national treasures leads many governments to aggressively market their countries’ pasts to the world as evocative symbols of continuity and resilience—and to demand the physical possession of relics of long-extinct cultures that once existed within their present political boundaries (El-Gendi 2016). Colonialism is alive and well in what has been called the “heritage regimes” of individual nations (Bendix, Eggert, and Peselmann 2012). For despite the universalist rhetoric of international cultural property treaties, conventions, and standards of archaeological practice, each sovereign state is free to permit or prohibit archaeological work within the territory it controls. Thus, the antiquarian acquisitiveness of the vast European colonial empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been fragmented and replaced in the twenty-first century by the cultural possessiveness of individual nation-states in their competition for prestige and recognition in a globalized world (Meskell 2018; Nilsson Stutz 2013).

Archaeological activism has arisen in recent years to challenge the power of centralized archaeological bureaucracies and to contest the standardized procedures and narratives they perpetuate. Bruce Trigger was among the first to lay bare the instrumentalism of officialized archaeology inherited from earlier eras, identifying three main types of archaeologies by their political objectives: imperialist, colonialist, and nationalist (1984). Yet the keywords among archaeological activists today are different: community engagement, collective memory, and decolonization. The first aims to collaborate meaningfully with local communities in archaeological research (Bonnie, Lorenzon, and Thomas 2023), in an attempt to reverse the colonial tradition of their silent participation as workers and servants in foreign archaeological digs (Mickel 2021). The second recognizes the diversity of archaeological values, encouraging local and associated communities to reflect on both their hopes for the future and their historical traumas to construct meaningful and sometimes multiple cultural identities (Wang 2018). And the third accepts the two previous strategies in service of a universalizing principle. That principle is decolonization, adapting both critical and postcolonial theory to oppose a normative Eurocentric global order still based on ideologies of racial exceptionalism and the cultural erasure of indigenous and marginalized groups (Atalay 2006).

The goal of decolonization has been accepted widely in some international fora and academic circles and has been taken up by a heterogeneous coalition of substate political movements engaged in a struggle for recognition and in some cases independent sovereignty. International bodies such as the United Nations’ Special Committee on Decolonization and its Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Daes 2008), the African Union, the Non-Aligned Movement, and other regional and local initiatives all voice support for a variety of policy and economic initiatives to restore the political, economic, and cultural autonomy of indigenous and marginalized groups (Aly 2022). In academia, the scholars and theorists who founded postcolonial studies, including Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Aimé Césaire, and Aníbal Quijano, among others, have provided intellectual and literary frameworks for explaining how the colonial subject is regarded by colonial rulers as an inferior or primitive “Other,” thereby justifying their domination and dispossession. In cultural terms, they describe the process of “epistemicide” (Santos 2016), which results in the disparagement and eventual erasure of indigenous or alternative worldviews and collective identities.

In recent decades, postcolonial theory has inspired new activist attitudes to archaeology and heritage commemoration throughout the Near East and eastern Mediterranean, highlighting how certain visions of the past have furthered the interests of political and economic elites (e.g., Boytner, Swartz Dodd, and Parker 2010; Meskell 1998). Histories of the entanglement of archaeology with European colonial ambitions have motivated targeted countermeasures. Indeed in some quarters, archaeology in the region has come to be recognized as a potent tool for the support of cultural and political resistance throughout the region, both in its performative aspect (Cesari 2019; Taylor 2015) and as a means of shaping decolonialized archaeological narratives (Greenberg 2015; Klein 2020; Pappa 2018).

Yet there is a seeming paradox in the use of archaeology as a medium for decolonial activism. For in its systematic, empirical, positivist, and materialist methodology, it utilizes many of the same methods of documenting, measuring, categorizing, and distinguishing patterns of resources and material culture used by Western colonial powers in their penetration and eventual domination of the Middle East (for the example of Egypt, see Mitchell 2001). Ironically, its effect is what Schneider and Hayes have termed “Epistemic Colonialism” (2020). Though new themes of domination and resistance have been tackled, and new narratives of historical identity have been composed by proponents of decolonial archaeology, they have had little impact on the established institutional and governmental structures of officialized archaeology. Even worse, their aspirational rhetoric has in some cases served to bolster the power of activist elites to enforce on their followers a new decolonial orthodoxy.

The Hidden Danger of Authorized Narratives

In her influential book Uses of Heritage, L. Smith coined the now-familiar term authorized heritage discourse (AHD) to describe official heritage narratives that focus “attention on aesthetically pleasing material objects, sites, places and/or landscapes that current generations ‘must’ care for, protect and revere so that they may be passed to nebulous future generations for their ‘education,’ and to forge a sense of common identity based on the past” (Smith 2006: 29). In its most common usage AHD is seen as an instrument of continued Eurocentric hegemony (and its supporting instruments of knowledge production—linear chronologies, materialist aesthetics, and restrictive legal definitions of the classes of material culture that should be protected and which can be ignored or destroyed). Smith argues that “the AHD excludes those understandings of heritage that sit outside or are oppositional to it. Thus, non-elite, sub-national, non-Western, non-archaeological or other forms of heritage that challenge or do not confirm to universalizing heritage narratives are ignored or dismissed and defined as the special pleadings of minority interests” (Smith 2012, paragraph 19). But in our globalized world, where the mechanisms of identity politics are becoming increasingly homogeneous across cultures while particular cultural identities are becoming increasingly heterogeneous within them (Sunder 2001), colonizing and decolonizing activists are sometimes not so easy to tell apart. I would argue that what is missing in the conventional understanding of authorized heritage discourses are their ubiquity and usefulness. In fact it could be said that any archaeological or heritage narrative that serves as a sign of collective identity and a symbol of political aspiration is an authorized heritage discourse.

AHD, in this perspective, is seen as a tool through which colonial powers defined and controlled heritage, reinforcing their dominance over indigenous cultures and histories. However, it is crucial to recognize that AHD is not limited to European colonialism alone; rather, it is a broader concept that transcends geographical boundaries and historical periods. AHD is framed as a form of power that influences how heritage is defined, valued, and presented, and its application extends beyond European colonial contexts to encompass various forms of cultural hegemony and dominance. While European colonialism provides a significant historical example, the concept can be applied to other imperialist and hegemonic systems globally. Movements advocating for decolonization, indigenous rights, and cultural autonomy often critique AHD as a mechanism that perpetuates inequalities and erases alternative perspectives. By scrutinizing AHD, these movements aim to reclaim agency in the representation and preservation of their cultural heritage, challenging the hegemonic power structures embedded in heritage discourse. In the contemporary context, AHD has become a critical tool in the arsenal of antiimperial movements, particularly those challenging the legacies of colonialism.

Gayatri C. Spivak, one of the most widely quoted postcolonial theorists, explains the process by which essentializing narratives of collective identity—condemned as hegemonic when utilized in Eurocentric narratives—can be essential to liberation struggles as well. In her classic essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (Spivak 1988), she critiques the presumption of Western scholars who articulate the plight of colonialized and marginalized groups, without letting peoples regarded as subaltern speak for themselves. Instead, she proposes a means for their own self-expression which she calls Strategic Essentialism. It has been concisely described as “a minority strategy for influencing mainstream society” in which members of indigenous or marginalized groups, which are highly differentiated internally, may essentialize and standardize their public image, “thus advancing their group identity in a simplified, collectivized way to achieve certain objectives” (Eide 2010).

Strategic essentialism thus provides yet another paradox in the analysis of decolonial activism. In the context of archaeology, it advocates the formulation of what can only be characterized as an authorized heritage discourse—not consciously Eurocentric but still utilizing the tools of ethnic or other collective categorization to create a binary view of history in which any (internal or external) attempts to question or criticize the validity of the essentialized identity is regarded as playing into the hands of colonial hegemony. Further complicating this strategy is that strategic essentialism—which Spivak viewed as a temporary tactic—is exceedingly hard to abandon, once the group achieves some measure of recognition and political autonomy. In the hands of newly empowered leaders, it can become an oppressive orthodoxy that excludes from the group all who do not accept its validity.

The historian R. Landes, a scholar of medieval and contemporary millennial movements, created an evocative barnyard parable to describe the effect of empowerment on revolutionary elites (Landes 2011). He characterizes the prophets of millennialist movements as Roosters, whose predawn crowing wakes up all the other animals with his call to action “Dawn breaks, arise for the Day of the Lord!” The revolutionary Rooster is contrasted with the hoot of the establishmentarian Owl: “Quiet! It’s still the middle of the night; the master sleeps; the foxes are out; and you can only do damage by awakening the barnyard prematurely.” What is so telling about this parable is its dramatic reversal. When the Rooster has awakened the barnyard and has convinced all the animals that the great day of empowerment is approaching—and for some reason the Day of Judgment tarries—he must cling onto power by becoming an owl-like prophet of ideological orthodoxy.

And so it is with authorized heritage discourses. At first used as symbolic battle banners for an attack on the status quo, they can become the voice of authority with the power to demean and exclude from group membership those who do not tow the party line.

The Middle East and eastern Mediterranean have witnessed countless such reversals. Strategic essentialism is a foundational component of authorized heritage discourses serving as a political tool to build collective narratives, mobilize political support, and assert claims for recognition, sovereignty, or cultural autonomy. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, involves complex historical, political, and cultural dimensions, and the deployment of strategic essentialism on both sides is a key to its role in decolonial activism within archaeology and historiography (Silberman 2013). Likewise in the fraught relations between Greece and Turkey, strategic essentialism has played a role in shaping national identities and political narratives. Both countries have, at times, strategically emphasized certain essentialized aspects of their identities for political purposes: the Greek state has strategically essentialized its national identity, drawing on historical and archaeological narratives that highlight the continuity of idealized Greek civilization (Hamilakis 2009). Similarly, Turkish leaders have engaged in strategic essentialism by emphasizing a collective Turkish identity that connects modern Turkey to its historical roots (Atakuman 2020). The Cyprus conflict provides another example where essentialized identities expressed through authorized heritage discourses come into direct confrontation. The Greek Cypriot community has emphasized its Hellenic roots through excavations and heritage sites, while the Turkish Cypriot community has emphasized its distinct Turkish identity through selective archaeological and heritage preservation and selective neglect (Sabri and Sakallı 2021).

Many more examples of competing heritage discourses throughout the region can be mentioned, both between nation-states and within their boundaries. But it is important for archaeological activists to recognize that politically mobilized archaeological narratives (both colonial and decolonial) often emphasize certain aspects of history, culture, or identity while marginalizing or omitting others. The construction of a dominant heritage discourse can be a tool for consolidating and perpetuating the authority of those with power within any political or cultural group. The most important struggle within archaeology is therefore not only between colonialism and decolonial efforts but between enforced, essentialized interpretations that privilege a certain reading of the heritage of a certain nation-state, ethnic group, or community and stifle alternative perspectives on the value and contemporary significance of all types of material culture remains.

What Can Archaeological Activism Actually Achieve?

Archaeological activism has given archaeology a social conscience, yet its future in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean still hangs in the balance (Porter 2010). Will the ongoing conflicts over the role of the past in the present continue to intensify aided by conscious or unwitting archaeological partisans? Will archaeology’s power to fascinate, to inspire serious reflection on past tragedies, mistakes, and triumphs encourage diversity, equality, and inclusion among its practitioners and all its participants? Or is the process of canonizing insular, authorized heritage discourses an inevitable phenomenon of our globalized yet fragmented world? One thing is for certain: critical rhetoric alone will not change the structure of archaeological laws and institutions that serve powerful vested interests. For archaeologists are no longer the only or even main players in archaeology’s public presentation. Profit, patriotism, and polemics reliably attract more powerful actors who shape the social function of archaeology.

That is not to say that archaeological activism is useless, but it must engage directly with the day-to-day reality of archaeological practice and rights-based stewardship. Archaeological activists should not rely only on academic theory and should avoid becoming spokespeople for movements with leaders that are Roosters who are likely to become Owls. As Liv Nilsson Stutz put it so well, archaeologists must avoid “a recapitulation or simple inversion of power relationships between colonizer and colonized, central state and local community, ethnic majority and ethnic minority. The main question becomes how to encourage dialogue, education and tolerance, and clarify the difference between nationalist/colonialist projects and right to culture aspirations, while still maintaining the ability to speak up about the potential dangers of essentialism” (Nilsson Stutz 2013: 188).

To that end, I offer two possible strategies for activism, neither of them easy: (1) entirely transforming the discipline we call archaeology and (2) addressing the legal structure of colonialist archaeology from within.

For the first alternative, archaeologists must be ready to abandon their primacy in field research and facilitate the incorporation of many more participants and means of expression in collaborative reflection on recent and remote pasts. The great expansion of community archaeology projects and programs has identified and developed a wide range of methodologies in which participants gain agency in enacting and expressing new relationships with places of archaeological or social significance. The problem with community archaeology as a strategy for wider public engagement is that it maintains the primacy of digging—or mapping patterns of material culture—as the central disciplines. In that regard it still places archaeologists in a privileged, authoritative position, suggesting that their methodological expertise in exposing hidden and not-so-hidden pasts is the definitive one. Other methodologies like participatory action research, oral history archives, cognitive mapping, digital storytelling, user-generated images on social media, have all been integrated into community archaeology, but they remain secondary or supplementary to the primary action of excavating and documenting the material residues of human activity. The discipline is thus imposed from the outside and runs the risk of disciplining the community to conceptualize the past in certain ways (Waterton and Smith 2010). Archaeology can of course remain a useful activity—but not the defining one. The creative process of fostering socially productive collective memory—not just categorizing material culture or crafting new authorized narratives—should be the focus of a new liberatory discipline (González-Ruibal, González, and Criado-Boado 2018).

The second suggestion is much more prosaic. Critical archaeology has contributed valuable new insights on the role of archaeology as an instrument of power. But despite its seemingly endless deconstruction of authorized heritage narratives, it has proved virtually powerless to restructure the governmental bureaucracies, national legislation, or the many academic curricula that still bear the imprint of colonialism. Could the reason be that archaeological activists and heritage policymakers live in two separate intellectual worlds? As the legal scholar L. Lixinski has pointed out, critical, activist archaeology, in its battle with what it sees as a purely Eurocentric authorized heritage discourse tends to view law and governmental structures as the main sources of inequality and cultural erasure. Many activists thus tend to view law as the main instrument of power and domination. “While this critique is valid,” he continues, “it tends to ignore a vast body of critical legal literature that tries to understand the same problems within the legal discipline. . . . The result of this miscommunication is that two bodies of knowledge that could (and should) be working together are growing apart” (Lixinski 2015: 211). But the collaboration between the two is precisely where constructive change can be made. By fostering partnerships with policymakers, advocating for new approaches to equity in cultural heritage protection, these archaeologists can play a pivotal role in making archaeology more inclusive, less chauvinistic, and accessible to marginalized or discriminated groups.

Real progress in transforming the character of archaeology and heritage will only occur when polemical rhetoric of “us vs. them” across borders and political conflicts gives way to the genuine formulation of a new template for archaeological heritage governance in which top-down efforts to preserve tangible remains of the past are replaced by an entirely different conception. That alternative is what the legal scholar M. Sunder of has called “cultural dissent” (2001). This approach not only addresses the present unequal power dynamic between mainstream and marginalized cultural communities but ensures that even within a particular community, its own leaders’ authorized heritage discourse can be actively contested and revised. Of course, those with political and economic power will always attempt to dominate the present with self-justifying narratives about the past, and archaeological activism must reject the intellectual megalomania it is sometimes prone to and recognize that its primary value lies in the stewardship of collective memory for present and future generations, not in direct political change.

As a systematic method of documenting patterns of material culture—even sites and artifacts that cannot be preserved forever (DeSilvey 2017)—archaeological activism will always remain an instrument of political and ideological meaning-making. And while some aspects of archaeological practice can be reformed to redefine its ethics and include multiple voices and perspectives, it can also fall prey to manipulation of competing political and economic interests and unwittingly allow itself to be recolonized. Archaeological activism is not separate from ongoing power struggles, nor is it ever a completely impartial arbiter of the truth. For archaeology’s perception of the past and its meaning, whatever its orientation, has always reflected, rather than changed, the global reality of power in which we are all entirely enmeshed.

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