Consciously or subconsciously, archaeological interpretation and the public presentation of archaeological monuments are used to support the prestige or power of modern nation-states. Although nationalism is only one of several modern ideologies that have sometimes subtly influenced archaeological interpretation, it is often the most visible, well supported, and socially pervasive. This is the result of the dominating role played by national governmental bodies, such as departments of antiquities, universities, and ministries of tourism and education, in the funding, legal oversight, and logistical support of archaeology. Indeed, national institutions often determine which of a nation's archaeological monuments will be preserved and presented to the public (through special legal decree or inclusion in national park systems) and often approve the contents of widely distributed interpretive information about them (in the form of school textbooks, on-site signage, and promotional tourist brochures). Although scholarly literature is, in most countries, less subject to direct government control, the political context of archaeological work is often unmistakable to academics and to members of the general public. In the Near East—as elsewhere in the world—archaeological finds, interpretations, and hypotheses are often woven into overarching narratives of progress and transformation, used to explain how the particular modern nation's peoples, life-ways, technologies, religions, and even forms of government have roots in a distant past.

Despite bureaucratic apparatus and governmental resources, however, control of archaeology by nation-states has never been either uniform or uncontested. In the Near East, archaeological exploration was long the exclusive province of foreign archaeological expeditions, whose members' direct involvement with particular nationalist ideologies in the region varied from outspoken commitment and political activism to neutrality to open hostility. Because the expansion of archaeological activity in the Near East has long been connected with general religious attachments, resource exploration, and economic development, rather than with specific nationalism, some of the major themes of archaeological interpretation have always highlighted such universal themes as religious evolution, ecological adaptation, and technological innovation, rather than particularist histories. Also working against the power of archaeological nationalism are internal political factors. In recent years, dissident minority and political opposition groups within Near Eastern nations have inspired alternative archaeological interpretations that directly expose or challenge the validity of “official” nationalistic archaeology. Thus, the importance of an examination of the interplay of nationalism and archaeology is not simply one of direct correspondence between a particular political ideology and archaeological interpretation, but rather the illumination of archaeology's relevance to ongoing and often acrimonious philosophical and political discussions about the legitimacy of the modern state and its relationship to the wider world.

In terms of a general definition, nationalism may be described as the philosophical belief in the historical and political legitimacy of territorially circumscribed, often culturally or ethnically homogeneous polities. The conception of the nation- state as the most coherent form of large-scale political organization emerged in Europe in the eighteenth century, when earlier empires based on religious authority or dynastic connections (such as those of the Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, and the Ottomans) had begun to disintegrate. Economic change was also an important factor in the emergence of the modern nation-state in Europe: in place of hereditary aristocracies whose power was largely based on the agricultural surplus of feudal landholdings, there arose urban elites whose power was based on commerce and large-scale production. The new elites became the spokesmen for, and leaders of, territorially and ethnically defined polities of a fairly uniform type. Yet, nationalism cannot be described merely as support of an abstract political formation. Nationalism's potency lies in the concrete manifestations of the patriotism—or chauvinism—of particular nation-states. When taken to extremes in the elevation of the glory of the nation above every other cultural value, nationalism can mobilize citizens to violent action in the pursuit of internal order or external war. Even in its most innocuous manifestations, however, modern nationalism is based on the presumptive antiquity and historical coherence of the boundaries, traditions, customs, and culture of the modern nation. In this respect, archaeology and the other historical disciplines are instrumental in bolstering and legitimizing what might otherwise be considered a thoroughly modern ideology.

Modern nation-states often construct historical narratives that are vividly illustrated by archaeological monuments and bolstered by archaeological interpretations that celebrate the very elements—centralized administration, organized religion, military power—most prized in the modern society (see below). Because these achievements are selectively identified in the archaeological record, the national “spirit” or “character” of the particular modern nation are made to seem timeless, inevitable, or, in some unfortunate and extreme cases, the result of unchanging racial attributes. Although some archaeologists and other scholars have occasionally utilized archaeological data to challenge the basis of modern nationalistic assertions, most scholars have chosen to restrict their interest to narrowly circumscribed research questions, rarely occupying themselves with the possible political implications of their findings. This generally leaves the business of public interpretation and presentation to others—often to officials of the interpretive branches of the national government itself. This sociopolitical phenomenon is strikingly uniform (both in the Near East and throughout the world), despite the antagonism that often arises between competing nations over the interpretation of the same types of artifacts or concerning the same set of historical events.

Archaeological projects, finds, and interpretations serve to legitimate the political power of nation-states in several standard ways. By helping to construct a narrative of the human settlement in the territory of the nation from prehistory to the present, distinguished primarily by the transformation of material culture, archaeology often reinforces the time-lessness of modern geographic perceptions and highlights the importance of economic development and technological change. While the sites and archaeological periods of a given nation may be superficially linked to unique historical events or personalities, an equation or correspondence can be made with the historical development of neighboring nation-states or regions using anthropological concepts, Stone/Bronze/Iron Age terminology, or carbon-14 dates. Thus, in providing both a particularistic biography for the nation and in demonstrating that the nation has undergone a development as complex and as lengthy as that of any other nation-state, archaeology provides both a pedigree and a curriculum vitae for the nation's full-fledged participation in the fraternity of modern sovereign states.

While many of the more virulent forms of archaeological nationalism and conflict were abandoned or diluted after the end of the Cold War and its surrogate regional conflicts, the continuing struggle for self-determination by minority ethnic communities throughout the Near East still sometimes finds its symbolic expression in a connection between archaeology and militant nationalism. In this period also, new, more subtle forms of political image making emerged. In a world of transnational economies and worldwide tourism, national identity could sometimes be achieved through the excavation and presentation of archaeological monuments selected for their presumed attraction to foreign visitors rather than for their importance in elaborating a particularistic nationalist ideology.

European Nationalism and Near Eastern Archaeology.

The religious and emotional attachment of the various peoples and polities of Western Europe to the antiquities of the Near East can be traced to the early centuries of the Christian era. The discovery and “translation” of relics of saints and biblical figures from the lands of the Bible to European cities established specific geographic and commercial connections. While the Muslim conquests of the early seventh century changed the region's political conditions, the continued European practice of pilgrimage and relic collection served to further the commercial interests of rival European centers under the guise of antiquarian interest or popular piety. The political dimension of the European attachment to Near Eastern relics and ruins was intensified with the establishment of the Crusader kingdoms in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the subsequent struggle for power within them by representatives both of church and various European principalities.

Even after the destruction of the Crusader kingdoms, European financial support and religious patronage of Christian shrines and holy places throughout the Near East were sources of political and diplomatic prestige. Yet, the Reformation in Europe in the sixteenth century brought about a significant split in the character of European attachments to Near Eastern antiquities. While the pope and the Catholic powers continued to encourage pilgrimage to the traditional holy sites, the early European Protestant explorers of the region—freed from, and often antagonistic to, the pilgrimage traditions of the Catholic church (and, for that matter, of the Eastern Orthodox churches)—sought to locate what they believed were the “true” locations of the biblical events. Although this antiquarian movement was a manifestation of European theological conflict, it can also be seen as part of an intensifying effort by representatives of trading nations such as England, France, Denmark, and Holland to widen their presence in the region and to contest the long-standing commercial hegemony of Venice and other Italian cities in the Levant.

The political dimension of antiquarian conflict intensified in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the Ottoman Empire became a tempting target for commercial and ultimately territorial penetration by European powers—notably England, France, and Prussia, and to a more limited extent Austria, Holland, and Russia. Scholarly pursuits and geographic exploration could not be easily separated from diplomatic, commercial, and religious initiatives at a time when the various nations were attempting to increase their influence in the region. In the field of antiquities and antiquities collection, the acquisition of movable relics began to be seen as an index of national prestige—particularly in Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Aegean—as resident European consuls competed to purchase and remove the most impressive or unusual antiquities.

The first truly national endeavor, however, occurred during the ill-fated Egyptian expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte (1797–1799), when the specially recruited Scientific and Artistic Commission undertook, under French auspices, a comprehensive cartographic and archaeological survey of the Nile River valley and, later, of Palestine. The surrender of one of the commission's prize finds—the Rosetta Stone—to the victorious British forces who supervised the French evacuation from Egypt In 1801 made the political and nationalistic value of the possession of Near Eastern antiquities unmistakable. The Rosetta Stone soon took its place in the British Museum with the Parthenon marbles brought back by Lord Elgin from Greece. In the following decades of the nineteenth century, the competition for antiquities was to become increasingly the activity of national bodies, both scientific and diplomatic, rather than of private individuals. In Egypt, the race for movable inscriptions and statuary intensified between the British and French consuls, and in Syria and Palestine, wide-ranging geographic explorations were undertaken by Ulrich J. Seetzen, on behalf of the Russian government, and Johann Burckhardt, on behalf of the British African Association. In Mesopotamia, in the 1840s, the conflict to excavate and export impressive remains of the Neo- Assyrian palace complexes, waged between the French consul in Mosul, Émile Botta, at Kuyunjik and Khorsabad, and the British consul, Austen Henry Layard, at Nimrud, brought the political competition to a fever pitch. [See Nimrud; and the biographies of Botta and Layard.]

In fact, the prominent display at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London of the monumental sculpture recovered by Layard at Nimrud and the conspicuous placement of an Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris marked the beginning of an era in which Near Eastern antiquities came to be seen as national trophies, symbols of modern European nations' pretensions to inherit the imperial mantles of the great nations of antiquity. Eventually, permanent national institutions and academic organizations were founded in nearly every European nation to direct and oversee its ongoing exploration of the Near East. Though European scholars of various nations periodically met, debated, and exchanged information, it is significant that the funding and directorship of the early archaeological undertakings in the region were restricted almost entirely to scholars of the same nationality. Thus, for British scholars, the Assyrian Excavation Fund (founded In 1850), the Palestine Exploration Fund (founded In 1865), and the Egyptian Exploration Fund (founded In 1883) became their main practical conduits for Near Eastern archaeological research. For the French, research was done primarily through the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and, in the Holy Land, by the Dominican École Biblique et Archéologique française (founded In 1891); for the Germans, it was through the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (founded In 1898) and, in the Holy Land, by the Deutscher Palästina Verein (founded In 1877); and for the Americans, through the American Palestine Exploration Society (1870–1884) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (founded In 1900). [See Palestine Exploration Fund; École Biblique et Archéologique Française; Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft; Deutscher Palästina Verein; American Palestine Exploration Society; American Schools of Oriental Research.]

European archaeological nationalism was also manifest in the manner in which the monuments were administered and excavation sites were selected. From the 1850s onward in Egypt, French economic and political influence resulted in the customary appointment of a French scholar as director-general of the antiquities service. Regulations enacted at the time of the 1882 British occupation of the country decreed that henceforth a British scholar would serve as deputy director, with extensive powers of his own. While fierce competition for museum- quality antiquities continued (in such cases as the bitter fight between British, French, and Prussian scholars for the famous Moabite Stone in Transjordan In 1868–1870), the claim to rich excavation sites—rather than individual relics—became paramount. [See Moabite Stone.] Indeed, with the various European powers preparing to partition the Ottoman Empire toward the end of the nineteenth century, territorial spheres of archaeological influence were established in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. Certain antiquities sites, and indeed entire regions, were regarded as the exclusive provinces of European scholars of particular nationalities. Thus, British predominance in southern Palestine, Sinai, and Lower Egypt; German predominance in central Asia Minor; and French predominance in Lebanon and Syria came to reflect those countries' larger territorial ambitions.

Aside from foreshadowing the direction of future European imperial expansion, nineteenth-century archaeology in the Near East institutionalized a distinctively European approach to the region's past. In former Ottoman provinces, such as Cyprus and Egypt, that came under direct administration by the British, archaeological interpretation began to absorb modern social concepts that far transcended the earlier classicism and historicism of biblical and classical archaeology. Although religious and literary interest continued, the conceptual framework for archaeologically based interpretations of both Near Eastern prehistory and of the later historical periods came increasingly to center on such secular concepts as ethnogenesis, ethnic migrations, state formation, religious evolution, technological development, and military tactics. [See Eugenics Movement.] Indeed, the archaeological interest in and elaboration of these concepts occasioned a subtle, yet far-reaching transformation in the modern social implications of the Near Eastern antiquarian enterprise. From passive veneration of religious scriptures, relics, and monuments, European scholars had, by the late nineteenth century, begun to weave a new, material narrative of the rise of the economic, political, and technological institutions of the Western world.

Naturally, the narratives were expressed in terms that were the most congenial to the specific storyteller: the British and American archaeologists in the region, exemplified by William M. Flinders Petrie and George A. Reisner, working under the influence of the generally progressivist model of material culture pioneered by Augustus L.-F. Pitt-Rivers, tended to see the sweep of history as one of increasing technological refinement, characterized by the adoption of ever more efficient and complex military and administrative systems, roughly dated by a regionwide Stone/Bronze/Iron Age scheme. [See the biographies of Petrie and Reisner.] In contrast, German and Austrian scholars, such as Friedrich Delitzsch and Hugo Winkler, often preferred to seek origins of cultural and racial characteristics, rather than their outcomes. They attempted to chart the interactions of the world's great cultures: to describe the dynamics of history as the encounter over the millennia of the world's passive peoples with more creative and active ones. This approach became particularly evident in the historical reconstructions of the followers of Delitzsch's Babel und Bibel school of the turn of the century, when racial and linguistic theories positing the primacy of the Indo-Aryans finally overcame the apparent Semitocentrism of the Noahide biblical genealogies. Archaeology and indeed Near Eastern historiography as a whole were now resolutely pointed westward. Although Western scholars of varying nationalities might now debate specific chronological and stratigraphic issues, few disputed the mostly unspoken assertion that they—not the local peasants who served them as domestics and excavation laborers—were the true cultural and spiritual heirs of the great empires of the ancient Near East.

A decisive turning point in the political and archaeological history of the region—and in the impact of European-style nationalistic concepts on its peoples—came in the years immediately following World War I. With the final partition of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious allies, the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the granting of at least nominal autonomy to Egypt, and the creation of League of Nations mandates in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, the future political landscape of the region was envisioned as one of independent nation-states. Under the tutelage of British, French, and Italian administrators, local populations were taught the techniques of self- determination; along with modern finance, education, public works, and public safety departments, archaeological administration in each of the mandated territories was organized as an embryonic national department of antiquities. The Cypriot and Egyptian antiquities services, under direct colonial control, had long been run in this manner, but new archaeological bureaucracies were established in Syria, Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq. Local participation was, for the most part, restricted to the lower bureaucratic levels of clerks and subregional inspectors. However, for the representatives of the various European powers who served at the higher levels, the period between the two world wars in the Near East was recognized as an archaeological golden age.

Rarely facing effective local political opposition to the expropriation of antiquities sites from the inhabitants of nearby villages, and with the forces of the mandatory regimes cooperating to ensure security and logistical support, massive excavation programs were begun by the various Western institutions in the region. Activities ranged from those of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in Upper Egypt and at Megiddo in Palestine, to the British Museum excavations at Carchemish in Syria, to the French excavations at Ras Shamra/Ugarit, to the continuing German activity in Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The earlier national competition of rival Western archaeological powers continued on an even larger scale. Although some early echoes of local nationalist opposition to foreign expeditions began to be heard in this period, especially in Egypt, the main political context for archaeological activity in the region continued to be primarily that of the scholarly pride and territorial interests of competing European states. Indeed, it was not until after World War II and the end of the colonial era that the peoples of the modern Near East themselves made powerful connections between Near Eastern archaeology and their own emerging national identities.

Archaeological Nationalism and the Rise of Near Eastern Nation-States.

Until well into the twentieth century, the empirical archaeological study of Near Eastern antiquities was pursued almost exclusively by visiting or resident European scholars and the few local scholars they had directly educated and trained. For the vast majority of the local population, older traditions of reverence remained potent; remnants of the past such as tombs, ruins, and natural formations ascribed to the activities of legendary or biblical figures were an integral part of a living landscape. They were sites of prayer, pilgrimage, and ritual in which modern peoples drew continuous blessings and inspiration. They were certainly not conceived as discrete research locales. Even the impressive ruins of Egypt and Mesopotamia were woven into Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traditions as the scenes of stereotypical biblical events. Their present ruinous states had clear significance to the larger narrative. The idea of digging up the ruins and removing any interesting artifacts found there clashed directly with time-honored local traditions.

In fact, when European explorers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries began excavating in the region they were often greeted with horror and outrage by local religious authorities. Excavation was considered to be, at best, a destructive and greedy search for buried treasure, or, at worst, the desecration of sacred sites. For centuries, the interpretation of the past had been the exclusive province of duly ordained religious authorities, guided by traditions and Scripture, be it the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Qur'an. The idea that anything meaningful (or previously unknown) could be divined through an examination of fallen stones, broken pottery, or the exhumed bones of the ancients seemed both foolish and heretical. Yet, with the gradual assimilation of the peoples and economies of the Near East into the European world system—and with the concomitant acceptance of European concepts of time, space, and empirical observation—the region's antiquities began to take on a new meaning and a new political significance.

The gradual spread through the region of the modern European-style concepts of nation and national destiny (particularly among Western-educated, urbanized, commercial, or intellectual elites in every region of the former Ottoman Empire) provided the basis for a continuing political struggle for independence. As had already occurred in Europe, images of the past, when loosed from traditional religious moorings, proved to be powerful vessels in the service of modern nationalism. Through the nineteenth century, particularly in Egypt, an entirely new school of nationalist historiography grew up that was not content to dismiss the country's impressive ancient remains as mere biblical relics or ruins of the “time of darkness,” the Jahiliyah, the era before the rise of Islam. Instead, they attempted to draw a lesson from the entire narrative of Egypt's history, stretching from the time of the pharaohs to the present. It was almost inevitably concluded that the new awareness of Egypt's great past precluded its continued subjugation by foreign powers. Egypt's ancient past and its modern destiny as an independent culture and an independent polity were therefore seen as essentially parallel.

The rise of political Zionism in the late nineteenth century similarly encouraged a growing number of Jews educated in European universities or otherwise exposed to European political ideologies to see Jewish history as finding fulfillment in the modern world only in the form of a culturally homogeneous, territorially based, modern nation-state. The novelty and potential power of this political conception can be gauged by the initial hostility of both orthodox religious officials and the Ottoman authorities. Yet, the general acceptance of the political program was eventually to be bolstered by assertions about the centrality of Jewish political independence, as suggested by archaeological monuments and finds from the time of Israelite and Judean kings.

The process was similar, if not completely simultaneous, among many of the nationalities and ethnic and religious communities of the region. In Syria, Arab Palestine, Cyprus, Turkey, and Iraq, ancient monuments, landmarks, and decorative motifs began to take on new meanings as symbols of the past greatness of the particular people and sure signs that the greatness could be achieved again. While local Ottoman administrators (or, in the case of Egypt, the only nominally autonomous khedives) had been content to allow Western scholars to excavate and remove antiquities from the country in return for bribes or political favors or in response to diplomatic pressure, the possession and local study of archaeological remains became a matter of national honor in some circles, especially when political independence loomed.

Until the post-World War I era, the notion of archaeological nationalism within the Near East was restricted almost entirely to small circles of intellectuals and often mixed inextricably with uncompromising, often radical, political ideologies. That peripheral status, and the hostility of the authorities, is illustrated by the fact that the members of one of the earliest of the nationalist organizations primarily devoted to archaeology, the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society (founded In 1912), felt it necessary to destroy all of its organization's records at the outbreak of the war. Yet, with the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of the war, and with the declaration of the allies at the San Remo Conference In 1920 that the destiny of all Near Eastern peoples should be one of self-determination, both nationalism and nationalistic archaeology acquired a certain political legitimacy. In Egypt the publicity surrounding the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun In 1922 by an English expedition sparked parliamentary protests by the Wafd party. It also led to the enactment of a ban on the export of Egyptian antiquities, a measure designed to end the officially sanctioned plunder of the modern Egyptian people's material patrimony. Although this regulation did not end European hegemony in Egyptological matters, it occasioned a profound shift in the local political context in which it was done.

An even more dramatic change came in Turkey in the 1920s, when the Kemalists began to construct a new, secular history for the republic. They downplayed Turkey's Islamic heritage, stressing instead its historical and ethnic links to the Indo-European Hittites of the second millennium BCE. In Palestine also the continued interest in archaeological remains by the Jewish community began to focus on concrete embodiments of earlier periods of independence and cultural creativity—primarily the tombs, fortifications, and fortresses of the Second Commonwealth and the synagogues of the Byzantine period. Such perceptions would only gradually spread throughout the region. As long as the administration of antiquities remained in the hands of the occupying or colonial powers, ultimately subject to their approval and academic standards, the pursuit of the nationalistic significance of archaeological remains could not always be actively pursued. With the gradual granting of independence to the various countries of the region during World War II, however (in the case of Syria and Lebanon), or in the years that immediately followed (as in the case of Egypt, Israel, and Jordan), the bureaucratic structures of antiquities administration were turned over to newly established governments. Although Western expeditions continued to work in the region, national priorities and nationalist ideologies played increasing roles in determining the pace and progress of Near Eastern archaeology. [See Ideology and Archaeology.]

The rise of modern nation-states in the Middle East (as elsewhere) brought about a dramatic shift in the social significance of archaeological work. The region was no longer seen exclusively as the “Fertile Crescent” or the “Cradle of Western Civilization,” but was divided into the homelands and autonomous domains of independent peoples. The connection for those people to the land and its archaeological monuments was immediate, not abstract. In each nation, the elaboration of “national” histories was being used as a tool in maintaining the new nation-states' social solidarity. It interpreted archaeological finds as evidence of timeless national character, precocious technological advancement, or as validation of the historicity of prized national myths. In Israel, for example, the emotional connection between the modern Jewish population and the ancient Israelites and Judeans was made explicit through the excavation of biblical sites and their incorporation into a national park system. The much-publicized excavation of the desert palace-fortress of Masada in the 1960s provided the modern nation with a powerful symbol and political metaphor. [See Masada.] At the same time, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan celebrated images and protected the archaeological remains of the trading Nabateans, the urban populations of the country's Late Roman cities, and the Umayyad caliphs. In Anwar Sadat's Egypt of the 1970s, the power and grandeur of the pharaohs was stressed, while in Iraq in the 1980s, the restoration of Neo-Babylonian monuments was conspicuously associated with the imperial pretensions of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the establishment of modern nations throughout the region occasioned the adoption of symbolic ancestors and their archaeological monuments. In the Yemen Arab Republic they were the Sabaeans; for the Lebanese Maronites, the Phoenicians; for the Syrians, the Umayyads and, after discoveries in the 1970s, the Early Bronze Age Eblaites.

The list of archaeologically “chosen peoples” and “golden ages” was eventually extended to every country in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean basin as traditional religious veneration of the past began to give way to European-style historiography. Despite the distinct images and sites celebrated by each of the nations of the region, the phenomenon was strikingly uniform. It reflected, ironically, the abandonment of time-honored national traditions in preference for the universal celebration of the power of modern archaeology. Thus, throughout the region, national parades and celebrations, postage stamp and banknote symbols, even the rhetoric of newspaper articles and political slogans memorialized and romanticized the symbolic significance of archaeological remains. Archaeological nationalism in the postcolonial period was not, however, restricted only to ideological exploitation of preexisting archaeological images. Ancient ruins, once mute elements of the landscape, became potentially transformable into national shrines and popular tourist attractions. Furthermore, they became the focus of intensifying excavation, following the lead of the earlier European scholars, in the thoroughly empirical study of the material remains of the past.

Departments of antiquities, university archaeology departments, and national museums became the established institutions of historical investigation and instruction, replacing the traditional religious authorities, whose authority became fairly narrowly circumscribed to matters of ritual. The secular institutions were, moreover, entrusted with protecting the nation's sovereignty over its own archaeological heritage. International legal claims began to be expressed for the “repatriation” of antiquities removed during the colonial era: Greek claims for the restoration of the Elgin marbles from England; Egyptian claims for the restoration of the Nefertiti bust from Germany; and Turkish claims for the restoration of the “Treasure of Priam” from the former Soviet Union were merely the most highly publicized.

Here, too, the specific claims should not be permitted to obscure the shared character of a regional phenomenon. Foreign expeditions continued to come to excavate ancient tombs, temples, and cities, but they did so with the express permission and often active cooperation of the local archaeological authorities. Criteria for supervision and control were broadly the same in every country. The conceptual, methodological, and often theoretical frameworks established for archaeology by scholars in the West were closely followed. From a politicosociological perspective, the only elements that differed from nation to nation were the specific sites and cultures selected as the main subjects of research. In this respect, and despite the military and diplomatic enmity between various nations of the region, the symbolic prominence of such archaeological monuments as Masada, the Ishtar Gate, and the Temple of Karnak represented the transformation of Near Eastern regional polities into European-style nation-states. At its core, then, archaeological nationalism in the Near East, as elsewhere, is something of a contradiction in terms. It was only in abandoning traditional national approaches to the past and adopting a more universal conceptual apparatus that the historical inevitability and legitimacy of modern, technologically based nation-states could be historically maintained.

Archaeological Nationalism and “Counterhistories.”

The establishment of modern nation-states in the Near East and the consequent authority bestowed on national departments of antiquities throughout the region gradually focused scholarly and popular attention on ever-more-tightly bounded areas. Terms such as “the archaeology of Israel” (or of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or Bahrain) became common, often existing alongside and sometimes even supplanting the archaeological use of such terms as “the Fertile Crescent” and “the Levant.” Indeed many important archaeological sites excavated and/or preserved under national auspices became symbolically identified with the modern nation and its ideological interests—by both its most fervent supporters and its external enemies. In this regard, the association of certain Iron Age sites in Israel such as Hazor, Megiddo, and Beersheba with the Early Israelites was both a source of considerable official pride within the country and a source of political criticism by its opponents, who challenged the specific “Israelite” character of the remains (Baramki, 1969). Similarly, the celebration of the grandeur of Persepolis by the shah of Iran (Lewis, 1975) and the attention lavished on pharaonic remains by Sadat in the 1970s (Reid, 1985) were both supported by government resources and condemned and eventually muted by internal Islamic opposition movements. In a more symbolic—if no less direct—manner, archaeological sites in northern Cyprus that had been of considerable ideological importance to the Greek-dominated government of the Republic of Cyprus were subject to plunder and neglect during the years immediately following the Turkish invasion of the island In 1974.

Acts of intellectual, rhetorical, and sometimes physical opposition to “official” national archaeological monuments and narratives are, however, usually underpinned by counternarratives that are no less coherent or politically self-justifying. In none of the cases mentioned above was the critique of a particular nationalist reading put forward in the interest only—or even primarily—of a more scientific or “objective” reading of the past. The critiques are themselves part of an ongoing political struggle for ideological legitimation and political power that frequently cloaks itself in archaeological and historical terms. The source of these counterhistories can be rival governments, opposition political parties, international bodies (whose interests are global rather than national), and—often most powerful and persistent of all—the emerging political elites of ethnic groups or communities struggling for their own statehood or autonomy. These fragmented, subnationalisms have, by their very existence, posed a threat to the coherence of the modern nation and have usually been ignored or moved to the margins of the state's official archaeological history.

In this connection, it is important to note that one of the most pervasive legacies of early European archaeology in the Near East was its chronological imbalance. Because the scholarly representatives of the Western nations saw themselves as the true inheritors of ancient Near Eastern civilization, their interest in the region's material remains extended only to the point where the economic, political, or religious developments they represented were directly relevant to them. Therefore, the eras after the “end of antiquity”—that is, after the seventh-century Muslim conquests, were of relatively less concern that those that preceded them. However, this was ethnocentrism rather than pure nationalism. The nationalistic aspect was emphasized after the end of the colonial period, when new chronological boundaries were determined by every nation-state. As mentioned above, each nation-state saw itself not as a modern political innovation, but as the political resurrection of a long-oppressed people and the fulfillment of that people's history. In that sense, the rise of the modern state was seen to mark the end of the period of cultural subjugation that had followed antiquity, or the people's cherished golden age.

Although the dates and cultural associations for the period of desolation varied with each nation (Islamic, Crusader, Ottoman, or European colonial), the negative associations evoked by the historical period led to a general neglect of its archaeological remains. Except for the interest of art historians and occasional epigraphers, the vast majority of non-monumental, archaeological remains of the medieval and postmedieval periods in the region were consigned to ignorance and oblivion. In practical terms, the otherwise fairly strict archaeological laws of most countries of the region mandated that the material remains of the later periods (with the exception of human remains and impressive standing architecture) were not protected and therefore considered to be removable debris, even by archaeologists undertaking the excavation of important sites.

As a result, a vast discrepancy arose between the scholarly knowledge of the material culture of those periods considered to be truly ancient (Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages) and those considered to be fairly recent. That differential had a great impact on the nationalistic understanding of history. Because practically no archaeological evidence of material culture change and economic adaptation had been collected from the remains of the periods immediately preceding statehood, the reasons for that political change and resulting modern struggles had to be explained through traditional textual sources. In other instances, those modern developments could be romantically retrojected onto a distant past and be ascribed to inherited traditions or national “character.” Whether the neglected archaeological remains came from the time of Ottoman domination (the Turkokratia in Greek-speaking countries), the time of Muslim domination in Israel, or the colonial domination of a given region by any and all outsiders, certain material remains were seen as being outside the purview of legitimate archaeology—and thus of little relevance for reconstructing the nation's “real” history.

In other parts of the world, however, such chronological and ideological barriers began to break down during the 1970s and 1980s with the spread of anthropologically oriented historical archaeology. This development would pose an eventual challenge to traditional archaeology in the Near East. Beginning with the theoretical work of James Deetz and Stanley South in the archaeology of colonial North America, it began to be clear that analysis of the material remains of recent or superficially familiar historical periods could provide some striking correctives to conventional understandings. Though the theoretical orientation of historical archaeologists varied from processualist, through structuralist, through neo-Marxist, implicit in the work of all of them was a desire to deepen accepted historical understandings. They wished also to discover some of the underlying causes and contexts for the European commercial and, ultimately, industrial expansion all over the world. In the recognition that material remains permitted analysis of the reality that underlay imperial expansion and the formation of modern nation-states, the historical archaeology of plantations, factories, ghettoes, and workers' housing proved congenial to the antiauthoritarian political reflections of feminism, labor history, social history, the antiapartheid movement in South Africa, and North American African-American history.

Thus, in the early 1980s, when the techniques and theoretical approaches of historical archaeology began to be applied—albeit on a tiny scale—in the Mediterranean basin and the Near East, archaeologists began to recover a material reality that had long been subsumed under the patronizing ethnological rubric of “traditional” everyday life (Ziadeh, 1987; Kardulias, 1994). In the excavations and material culture studies that began to be undertaken at Ottoman-period sites in Israel, Jordan, Syria, Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey, the very act of filling out the archaeological record and demonstrating that every part of the nation's history possessed dynamism, vitality, and complexity helped to undermine the basis of romantic, chronologically imbalanced, nationalistic archaeology.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century, the increasing internationalization of archaeological research in the prehistoric and early historic periods—both in field methodologies and theoretical interpretations—also served to counteract the classical nationalistic archaeology. The adoption of such scientific innovations as radiocarbon dating; chemical provenance studies; geological, botanical, and faunal analysis; and increasingly complex data processing had, by the 1960s, made the ongoing excavations in the Near East among the most technologically sophisticated in the world. The earlier tendency of Near Eastern archaeologists to identify migration and diffusion as the main mechanisms of culture change in the region gradually gave way to a variation of the American “New Archaeology,” in which emphasis was placed on the larger systemic concepts of ecological adaptation, resource exploitation, and technological efficiency. [See New Archaeology.]

This intellectual development had an unmistakable political context in the post-World War II period, as the Near East underwent unprecedented economic development. In an era when transnational corporations and international development agencies began to devote substantial resources to the study of the environmental, geological, and demographic potential of the various nations of the region, the objectives of Near Eastern archaeology began to reflect a more instrumental, functionalist view of ancient cultures. Particularistic historical questions were being supplemented—and to a certain extent supplanted—by new research questions about agricultural efficiency, economic profits, specialized production, and regional population growth. It was no longer enough merely to describe archaeological remains and link them to historically attested peoples and events. Process and systemic interaction became central. This change in emphasis so neatly parallels the imperatives of modern economic development in the region that it is difficult to ascribe the correspondence to mere coincidence (Miller, 1980; Patterson, 1995). Far more persuasive in its explanatory power is the recognition that the universalist, processualist archaeology was, like the nationalist archaeology it often replaced, a style of historical investigation that had its own implicit ideological subtext: retrojecting into the distant past late-twentieth-century concepts of efficiency, resource extraction, environmental balance, and of the inevitability—or at least imperative—of economic development in all human societies.

In this light, it may be legitimately asked whether archaeological nationalism is a discrete and identifiable—yet ultimately curable—intellectual malady, or whether it is merely one of a limited number of general political assertions that archaeology, throughout its history, has routinely been used to express. The development of new pictures of the past and new technological means of obtaining them have always been tied to economic and cultural change and the emergence of new intellectual and political elites. In the Near East as elsewhere, the acceptance of archaeology has required the abandonment of traditional means of history making—be they legendary, scriptural, or ritual—with all the social and cultural consequences that such an intellectual transformation entails. Whatever the specific nation of the region or the specific subject of archaeological research, politically powerful narratives can make the present seem natural and inevitable. They can also be used to support the power and authority of organized religions, transnational corporations, national liberation movements, and international development agencies—as well as established nation-states.

However, any review of the long history of the interconnections of archaeology and nationalism will demonstrate the particular power and pervasiveness of the nation-state. Although the international legal and scholarly communities have in recent years cooperated to protect and preserve endangered archaeological resources, and to internationalize both the theory and practice of archaeology (Trigger, 1986), conflicts between rival nations in the Near East over control of archaeological remains in disputed territory are seemingly beyond the power of international agencies or individual scholars to discourage or control. As long as control over the practice of archaeology in the Near East remains within the legal purview of national governments, with national departments of antiquities empowered to permit or prevent excavation at certain sites and to provide or withhold funding for public presentation, there is little that international bodies can do to adjudicate conflicting historical claims.

Through the force of archaeological tradition and practice, and through the very structure of modern nation-states in the region, it has become each nation's accepted right to determine the pace and location of excavations within its borders. It has become their right, through national park systems and tourist facilities, to highlight their own chosen peoples and golden ages. Moreover, to interfere with the archaeological agenda of a modern nation—so long as it is conducted along internationally accepted academic standards—is to risk a bitter protest against a violation of sovereignty. Thus, no international scholarly organization has so far been able to formulate and gain acceptance for an enforceable statement of global archaeological rights and obligations that can, when necessary, contest or overrule the narrow pursuit of particularistic national interests. Such an ethical hope may appear quixotic in a world composed of, and ultimately controlled by, nation-states. However, the ethics of the preservation and study of the archaeological remains of the widest possible range of human communities is an essential political and intellectual challenge. It needs to be met if archaeology is ever to be precluded from use primarily as an instrument of nationalism, or ever to serve meaningfully in the resolution—rather than in the promulgation and perpetuation—of national conflicts.

[See also Biblical Archaeology; Ethics and Archaeology; Museums and Museology; and Tourism and Archaeology.]


  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York, 1983.
  • Baramki, Dimitri C. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Palestine: A Survey of the Archaeology of Palestine from the Earliest Times to the Ottoman Conquest. Beirut, 1969. Part of a series issued by the Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center; its underlying nationalist orientation is clear.
  • Broshi, Magen. “Religion, Ideology, and Politics in Palestinian Archaeology.” Israel Museum Journal 6 (1987): 17–32.
  • Fagan, Brian M. The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt. New York, 1975.
  • Fagan, Brian M. Return to Babylon: Travelers, Archaeologists and Monuments in Mesopotamia. Boston, 1979.
  • Fowler, Don D. “The Uses of the Past: Archaeology in the Service of the State.” American Antiquity 52 (1987): 229–248.
  • Friedman, Jonathan. “The Past in the Future: History and the Politics of Identity.” American Anthropologist 94 (1992): 837–859. Enlightening essay on the political context for changing national histories.
  • Gathercole, Peter, and David Lowenthal, eds. The Politics of the Past. London, 1990.
  • Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Rev. ed. Princeton, 1990. Traces the early religious attachment of certain cities and nations to biblical relics.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge, 1990.
  • Hunt, E. D. Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire, AD 312–460. Oxford, 1982. Excellent account of the early political significance of relic hunting in the lands of the Bible.
  • Kardulias, P. Nick. “Towards an Anthropological Historical Archaeology in Greece.” Historical Archaeology 28.3 (1994): 39–55. Survey of recent developments in constructing histories of neglected archaeological periods.
  • Kohl, Philip L., and Clare Fawcett, eds. Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology. Cambridge, 1995. Wide-ranging collection of essays on the subject from archaeologists working all over the world.
  • Larsen, Mogens T. “Orientalism and the Ancient Near East.” Culture and History 2 (1987): 96–115.
  • Lewis, Bernard. History Remembered, Recovered, Invented. Princeton, 1975. Brief survey of manifestations of historical and archaeological nationalism in the Near East.
  • Lowenthal, David. The Past Is a Foreign Country. Cambridge, 1985. Eclectic survey of the modern uses of the past.
  • Miller, Daniel. “Archaeology and Development.” Current Anthropology 21 (1980): 709–726.
  • Patterson, Thomas C. Toward a Social History of Archaeology in the United States. Fort Worth, Tex., 1995. Incisive analysis of political power and its effects on the conduct of archaeology.
  • Reid, Donald M. “Indigenous Egyptology: The Decolonization of a Profession?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 105 (1985): 233–246. Survey of the intellectual and political contexts of Egyptology.
  • Silberman, Neil Asher. Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archaeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799–1917. New York, 1982. History of nineteenth-century national and religious conflict over the antiquities of Palestine.
  • Silberman, Neil Asher. Between Past and Present: Archaeology, Ideology, and Nationalism in the Modern Middle East. New York, 1990. Series of essays highlighting the modern social and political context of archaeology in the region.
  • Silberman, Neil Asher. “The Politics of the Past: Archaeology and Nationalism in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Mediterranean Quarterly 1 (1990): 99–110.
  • Silberman, Neil Asher. “Desolation and Restoration: The Impact of a Biblical Concept on Near Eastern Archaeology.” Biblical Archaeologist 54 (1991): 76–87.
  • Smith, Anthony D. The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford, 1986.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. “Alternative Archaeologies: Nationalist, Colonialist, Imperialist.” Man 19 (1984): 355–370.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. “Prospects for a World Archaeology.” World Archaeology 18 (1986): 1–20.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge, 1989.
  • Ziadeh, Ghada. “The Present Is Our Key to the Past.” Bir Zeit Research Review 4 (1987): 40–65. Theoretical and methodological essay on a new, critical archaeology of Palestine.

Neil Asher Silberman