There is a profound connection between archaeological research and the nonmaterial belief systems of both the ancient cultures and the modern societies in which archaeology is itself supported and pursued. Any discussion of the complex interplay of ideology and archaeological interpretation must take into account the essentially dual nature of the issue: the study of the belief systems of ancient cultures through the “reading” of material artifacts for their symbolic, ritual, or ideological meaning; and the conscious or subconscious imposition of elements of modern belief systems (e.g., perceptions of gender, ethnicity, economics) onto the interpretation of ancient cultures in both scholarly and popular literature.

In most cases, the penetration of modern ideologies into archaeological interpretation is subtle and unwitting. In a few cases, particularly where political or cultural institutions exploit readings of the past as the basis of their legitimacy or power, some scholars may enthusiastically cooperate in the dissemination of ideologically inspired interpretation in public forums. They may also feel constrained in their choice of acceptable research subjects, when funding or professional status is at stake. Such was certainly the case regarding racial theories in ancient Near Eastern history by German scholars during the Nazi era (1933–1945), and by the scholars of many nations who have found themselves entangled in the religious and territorial conflicts of the modern Near East. Yet, whether their ideological basis is subtle or overt, archaeological interpretations, like other scholarly understandings of society and culture, are necessarily formulated in contemporary contexts. As such, they can be seen as modern social behavior and cannot help but embody contemporary ideologies and social ideals.

The seemingly logical assumptions by which an archaeologist connects an excavated destruction level with a historically attested event; how he or she attributes a particular distribution of seeds or ratio of animal bones to the consumption patterns of certain ancient ethnic groups; or how an excavator identifies the function of a certain room or building are all derived from the scholar's most basic perceptions of how the world works. Such perceptions are, however, subject to dramatic transformation. Recent studies of the origin of modern concepts of race, progress, nationalism, labor specialization, gender roles, and even the idea of the autonomous “individual” have shown them to be closely linked to the social dislocations and reorganizations of the industrial age.

Ideologies, as systems of cultural logic—not merely explicit religious or political doctrines—are a natural part of human thought. Thus, it could be argued that archaeologists' interpretations can reveal as much about the societies in which they are members and political actors as about the ancient societies whose cultures they attempt to explain. Artifacts, architecture, and settlement patterns, however well documented and dated, possess meaning only within a culture. They cannot be interpreted without fitting them into a larger conceptual framework. As a result, the problem of reconstructing ancient ideologies is compounded by coming to terms with the outlines of modern ideologies as well.

Because excavated artifacts and preserved archaeological sites can be seen as part of the material world of the society that discovers and studies them, as well as of the society that produced them, they possess—as museum pieces and tourist attractions—a social significance quite distinct from the function for which they were originally designed. A cuneiform tablet, fertility figurine, or offering vessel, for example, would each have quite a different place in the world view of an ancient Near Eastern priest and a late twentieth-century archaeologist. The relationship between material culture and ideology in the Near East should therefore be seen as a complex process of reinterpretation. Any serious study of this process must come to recognize that the intellectual challenge is not to attempt to strip archaeology of its modern ideological perspectives, but to document and analyze the function—and interplay—of both ancient and modern ideologies.

Ideology: A Changing Concept.

The definition of ideology itself underwent a radical reformulation after it first appeared in the late eighteenth century. First used by the French social philosopher Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836) to designate the scientific study of human thought and ideational systems, the earliest conception of “ideology” contained within it the Enlightenment belief that human ideas were closely linked to bodily sensations and were thus ultimately part of the material world. The assumption that human belief systems are finite, structured, and closely connected material conditions has always been central to the concept of ideology. As such, it has been opposed by religious conservatives who believe that (at least some) human belief systems cannot be so easily analyzed and dissected, that they are unconnected to social conditions and are essentially expressions of a transcendent spiritual truth. In the course of time, the term ideology has taken on additional meanings, contributed by both supporters and detractors of its validity. Thus, some use the term in archaeological contexts to refer to an active study of a material-based belief system, while others use it essentially as a synonym for religion or philosophy, generally denying explicit functional connections to social or economic reality.

The study of antiquity was connected with the concept of ideology from the very beginning. With the eighteenth-century European discovery of the monumental ancient remains and language systems of India and China, the French Encyclopedists attempted to distinguish structural similarities in those ancient societies' grammar and symbolism—similarities that transcended the specifics of regional culture and might reveal the essential character of human thought. The civilizations of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt were eventually included in this comparison. The guiding principle was that all human ideas and beliefs could be neatly categorized according to types and arranged in ascending orders of complexity. Like plants and animals, there was a logical structure that could be apprehended by human reason, and that like botany and zoology, ideology should be considered a respectable academic discipline.

Ideology, however, did not long remain a passive intellectual exercise. In the decades following the American and French Revolutions, visionary schemes for social change through the application of Reason arose on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The confidence that scholars could identify and delineate human belief systems, and demonstrate their direct connection to material conditions, led some French social philosophers (later derisively called ideologues) to see the study of ideology as a springboard for action. Like physiology, biology, and psychology, ideology might serve as an instrument for improving the material world. If human thought could be understood, it might be manipulated to end hatred, greed, jealousy, and aggression among social groups. This visionary social project proved to be a failure. As a result, the term acquired the negative connotation it still possesses.

Bitter conservative criticism of the ideologues and their liberal social programs, spearheaded by the outspoken attacks against ideology by the emperor Napoleon, transformed the common meaning of the term to refer to a mistaken, shallow, or deceptive body of beliefs. This more general usage was further refined by Karl Marx in the 1850s. Marx came to see ideology as the ruling ideas and symbolic systems of every society, in which the domination of the ruling class is made to seem natural, inevitable, and uncontestable to everyone. This conception of ideology, in which the social logic of a society is linked in a functional way to the preservation of the power of a small group within that society, went beyond earlier structural understandings to provide a dynamic motive for the creation and overthrow of ideologies.

In the early twentieth century, the group of German philosophers known as the Frankfurt school further developed Marx's conception of ideology in what has come to be called critical theory. The theory asserts that all ideologies are essentially coercive and suggests that the study of belief systems is inherently emancipatory. In trying to uncover what they defined as the conscious and subconscious control systems established by both ancient and modern elites, the Frankfurt school and later critical theorists, such as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, established a socially engaged and politically activist dimension to the study of ideology. Although based on historical analysis, its effects were directed to the present and future. In attempting to expose the hidden self-interest that directed every belief system, the critical theorists specifically sought to analyze and deconstruct contemporary capitalist ideology.

Ideology in Near Eastern Archaeology.

Through most of the history of Near Eastern archaeology, the concept of ideology has been restricted to that of ancient religion and other nonmaterial belief systems. Although certainly not valid as transcendent truths (they could be described as rather primitive superstitions), they were nonetheless entirely spiritual. Thus, during the early archaeological exploration of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the discovery of temples, tombs, remains of sacrifices, and ritual implements were studied in an attempt to understand the “religions” of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia as if there were a coherent body of religious beliefs and practices that could be studied in isolation from those societies' technological, economic, military, or governmental practices. In time, progressivist and social evolutionary theories suggested that the religions of the ancient Near East were in a process of transformation, moving ever onward toward a biblical ideal.

In this respect, William Foxwell Albright in Palestine, James Breasted in Egypt, and Henri Frankfort in Mesopotamia can be seen as originators of an archaeological approach to the nonmaterial belief systems of the ancient Near East. In it the elements of greatest prominence in modern religions—monotheism, standardized rituals and religious architecture, and religious texts and law codes—were interpreted as the primary bearers of ancient ideologies. For Albright, in particular, details of religious practices and cult places recorded in the Bible became the base line for distinguishing their counterparts in the material record. The literalism of this correspondence between material artifact and text, however, prevented many scholars from ever going beyond mere illustration of conventional modern conceptions of the role of prayer, sacred spaces, and ritual sacrifice. [See the biographies of Albright, Breasted, and Frankfort.]

Similarly, the early archaeological study of tombs and tomb architecture in Egypt, Syro-Palestine, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia was concerned with the presumed, direct relationship between material forms of tombs and burial with the society's beliefs about the afterlife as recorded in religious texts. [See Tombs; Grave Goods.] This was also true of the excavation and study of later forms of religious expression such as the temples, synagogues, and churches of the Roman and Byzantine period. [See Synagogues; Churches.] Details of material culture (orientation, special-use chambers, decoration) were also linked to changes in specific religious practices. Few attempts were made by scholars of the late classical periods to go beyond conventional historical definitions of Hellenistic paganism, Judaism, and Christianity, to formulate a cross-cultural functional theory of ideology.

Only in the realm of Near Eastern prehistory, far beyond the chronological limits of direct connection with the historically attested religions of Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia, did archaeologists attempt to link nonmaterial belief systems with stages of social development. Thus, in the discovery of apparent funerary offerings connected with Natufian burials and the excavation of anthropomorphic figurines and plastered skulls beneath the dwelling floors in the Neolithic levels at Çatal Höyük, Jericho, ῾Ain Ghazal, Tel Ramad, and Tell Abu Hureyra, archaeologists connected a certain form of religious ideology (i.e., ancestor worship) to the beginnings of sedentary settlement. [See Çatal Höyük, Jericho, ῾Ain Ghazal.]

With the expansion of material forms of religious expression in the Chalcolithic period at sites like Teleilat el-Ghassul, ῾Ein-Gedi, and Tell Ḥalaf; at predynastic sites in Egypt; and at Ubaid and Early Uruk sites in Mesopotamia, the geographic dispersion of decorative motifs and burial customs prompted some scholars to link the spread of religious ideology with population movements or less precisely defined “cultural influence.” [See Teleilat el-Ghassul; ῾Ein-Gedi; Ḥalaf, Tell; Ubaid; Uruk-Warka.] More recently, the differentiation in the size and elaborateness of Chalcolithic burials in the Beersheba valley, when added to the evidence of settlement patterns, has prompted Thomas Levy to characterize the nonmaterial belief system of the period as representing the “chiefdom” stage of social organization (Levy, 1995). Similarly, Early Bronze Age religious specialization has been linked by some scholars to the rise of urbanism. At least in the earliest archaeologically attested periods, religious ideologies have been typologically analyzed, even though their function is seen as basically reflective, not transformative, of the material reality.

While some attempts have been made to utilize structural anthropology to “read” the cultural grammar of ancient Near Eastern societies through symbolic inside/outside, left/right, male/female oppositions expressed in material culture, other recent approaches have studied ideology not as a neutral cultural grammar, but as the calculated misrepresentations of powerful elites. The political significance of exaggeration and even chauvinistic fantasy has long been recognized in studies of the ancient reliefs of Egypt and in the material culture of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. A few studies have attempted to distinguish nonverbal, nongraphic expressions of ideology. In recent examinations of the significance of the impressive encircling ramparts of many Syro-Palestinian cities of the Middle Bronze Age, Shlomo Bunimovitz and Israel Finkelstein have suggested that the defensive significance of these massive structures was less important than the psychological impact they would have had on both local inhabitants and potential foes (Bunimovitz, 1992; Finkelstein, 1992).

Ancient and Modern Ideologies: An Interplay.

In all archaeological attempts to reconstruct ancient ideologies—be they of specific cult, transcendent beliefs, systems of cultural logic, or calculated political misrepresentations—scholars run the risk of unwittingly imposing their own ideological or religious values on material remains. To a certain extent, the scholar's understanding of the nature of ideology itself will determine how much danger from this direction he or she perceives. For those scholars who see ideology as explicit, yet highly circumscribed sets of beliefs about religious or political systems, there has long been a reluctance to believe that a fair-minded scholar's modern religious or political beliefs (also tightly circumscribed and therefore presumably separable) would necessarily prevent an “objective” study and assessment of archaeological remains.

It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that role of modern ideologies in the conduct and direction of Near Eastern archaeology is far more fluid and pervasive than traditionally believed. In the nineteenth century, basic theological disputes between Protestant and Catholic scholars in Europe gave rise to the first systematic explorations of Palestine; competing European national interests and imperial expansion into the region served as the background of much of the later nineteenth-century exploration and excavations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Palestine, and Syria. The close connection between archaeology and the post-World War II nationalisms of the region has also been observed in the governmental utilization of archaeological sites as national monuments and, in some cases, shrines. Debates over the ethnicity of ancient groups and their possible genetic relationship to modern Near Eastern peoples have also been motivated in large measure by modern territorial, religious, or political conflicts. [See Biblical Archaeology.]

Beyond the influence of explicit belief systems, however, there may be a more pervasive modern belief system that makes the separation of modern ideology from archaeological interpretation virtually impossible. Mark Leone (1982) and Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley (1987) have argued for the widest possible definition of ideology. They see it as a society's takens-for-granted—that is, not so much an expressed set of governing ideals, but an unexpressed, yet artificial and often self-serving construction of reality. In line with the assertions of critical theory, they see ideology as a system through which the power of elites is maintained: not so much by memorized catechisms or pledges of allegiance, but through the incessant training of all of the society's members about the “natural order of things.”

In the field of historical archaeology in North America and Europe, a number of scholars have attempted to delineate the rise of the modern industrial consciousness and its material manifestations through changes in uniformity and regimentation (city planning, landscape alteration, house forms, and interior room arrangement); changes in the role of the individual in society (through the increasing numbers of artifacts linked to the individual for personal hygiene, grooming, and status differentiation); and through conspicuous public use of symbols of order (neoclassical facades, formal gardens, radiating street plans) to counteract the elites' fear of disorder—imagined or real. These elements of modern cultural logic about work, self, reason, and efficiency, they argue, are still potent and affect deeply how modern archaeologists see the cultures of antiquity.

Thus, despite the calls to introduce processual and anthropological approaches in Near Eastern archaeology as a means of making the discipline more objective or “scientific,” some critics suggest that this merely represents the imposition of a modern ideology. Indeed, as Thomas Patterson (1995) has noted, the prominence of systems theory, resource exploitation, and measures of labor efficiency in some processualist interpretations of ancient societies merely retrojects the modern ideology of transnational industrial development on the past. [See New Archaeology.]

Is an ideology-free archaeology possible? The material world is always mediated through ideological symbols. To a certain extent, the visual and intellectual impact of archaeological finds often provides raw material for the crafting or apparent substantiation of modern ideologies, as well—whether of the conscious, overt types (church history, nationalism, racialism) or more pervasive relations (gender, work, the individual). It might therefore be said that it is impossible to strip archaeological interpretation of its modern ideological components. It is, after all, the cultural logic of modern society—its ideology in the broadest sense—that is precisely the conceptual framework with which scholars make sense of the ancient world.

In this respect, Near Eastern archaeology is, and always has been, a powerful social, religious, and political activity. It is fully involved with the illustration, or, alternatively, the challenge, to modern social, religious, and political ideologies. It is therefore to be hoped, in light of the growing awareness of the role of ideology in both ancient and modern societies, that archaeologists in the Near East will come to recognize the wider ideological implications of their interpretations and recognize the constructive role they can play in the ongoing debates and discussions about the region's present and future, as well as its past.


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Neil Asher Silberman